Posts Tagged ‘money’

Gig’s Baby

Monday, January 14th, 2019

Todd's Elk Breakfast

Lucinda, a breakfast waitress at the Backwoods Cafe in Yakima Washington, a roly-poly brunette in her forties, her hair in a bun, her nametag pinned to her black vest, saunters over to the window table where Gig Antonelli is having a muffin and coffee, refills his coffee cup, gives him a sparkly smile, and says in a friendly way, “Would you mind telling me how old you are?”

“I’m fifty,” says Gig, smiling sleepily at Lucinda because he is sleepy, having spent the night dozing fitfully in the driver’s seat of his faded bronze 2000 Camry parked on the side of a dirt road thirty miles north of Yakima. “May I ask why you want to know my age?”

Gig’s nose is slightly aquiline, his eyes are greenish brown, his voice is pleasantly gruff, and he always sounds a little stoned, though he hasn’t had a puff of pot in three years. For most of his life he was a beefy stoner with lots of extra beef and long hair, and now he is trim and muscular, his graying brown hair cut short for the first time since he was on the high school football team in Mountain Home Idaho.

Lucinda gives Gig a wrinkled-nose smile and says, “Sara and I… Sara’s the other waitress here… we had a little bet. She said you were one of those guys in his sixties who takes really good care of himself, and I bet you were fifty-three.” She shrugs. “Sorry.”

“No need to be sorry,” says Gig, sipping his coffee. “How much did you win?”

“A dollar,” says Lucinda, deciding to flirt with Gig. “You in town for long?”

“No, I’m on my way to Idaho,” says Gig, and just saying Idaho brings him close to tears.

Gig rarely picks up male hitchhikers, but he always gives female hitchhikers rides because he worries about them being picked up by dangerous men. However, on this rainy day in March, he really wants to talk to somebody, needs to talk to somebody, so he stops for the scruffy blond guy with a wispy goatee standing at the south end of Yakima with a cardboard sign saying Boise.

“Thank you so much,” says the guy, getting in the car and holding his bulky black knapsack on his lap, his orange jacket badly frayed, his blue jeans about to tear at the knees. “Stood there all day yesterday and slept in a ditch last night.” He shrugs philosophically. “Not a bad ditch, but not one of your better ditches, and then just as I was falling asleep a couple coyotes came sniffing around so I hardly slept thinking they might come back with their pals and have a feast, not that there’s much on these bones to eat.”

“I’m Gig,” says Gig, offering the fellow his hand. “What’s your name?”

“Biz,” says the fellow, allowing Gig to grip his hand, but offering no resistance, no matching grip.

Gig releases Biz’s hand feeling mildly disappointed—the quality of a handshake important to him.

“You spell that B-I-Z?” asks Gig, looking at Biz’s knapsack. “You can throw that in the backseat if you want to. Long way to Boise.”

“Didn’t see much room back there,” says Biz, glancing back at the sum total of Gig’s earthly possessions, not counting the five guitars in the trunk.

“Oh it can ride on top of that stuff,” says Gig, waiting for Biz to get the knapsack situated before pulling back onto the highway. “Nothing breakable.”

“Thanks,” says Biz, settling into his seat and sighing with relief to be moving again. “So yeah, I spell it B-I-Z. Just one Z.”

“Short for business?” asks Gig, smiling curiously at Biz. “Which business would that be?”

“Show business,” says Biz, looking out the window at the passing scenery. “I was a regular on two TV shows and I was in nine movies. Long time ago.”

“Couldn’t have been that long,” says Gig, not believing him. “You’re what… twenty-eight? Twenty-nine?”

“Guess again,” says Biz, closing his eyes. “Man, this is a comfortable car.”

“Thirty?” says Gig, thinking Biz might be as young as twenty-seven and as old as thirty-five.

“I wish,” says Biz, keeping his eyes closed. “Try forty-seven.”

“No,” says Gig, making a disparaging face.

Biz opens his eyes and looks at Gig. “I played high school kids until I was thirty-five, and when I couldn’t play high school kids anymore, nobody wanted me.” He closes his eyes again. “Cut to twelve years later. Biz, a former actor now a homeless recovering crack addict, waits two days at the south end of Yakima freezing his ass off until a guy named Gig mercifully gives him a ride.”

“I’m homeless, too,” says Gig, deciding to believe everything Biz tells him from now on. “Though I do have a mother with a nice house who says I can come live with her.” He nods to confirm this. “So now the only question is, can I get over my shame about being such a humongous failure and go back home with nothing.”

“I know of what you speak,” says Biz, nodding. “I have a sister in Ogden. That’s where I’m going. Hoping she’ll let me stay with her for a while.”

“In the meantime,” says Gig, rolling down his window and breathing deeply of the rain-washed air, “here we are.”

“Yeah,” whispers Biz. “Okay with you if I sleep for a while?”

“Sure,” says Gig, yawning. “I’m pretty tired, too, so don’t be surprised if I pull off the road for a snooze.”

“No worries,” murmurs Biz. “I trust you.”

They stop for gas in Kennewick and Gig treats Biz to a couple hot dogs from the little grocery attached to the gas station; and because Biz hasn’t eaten anything in two days, the hot dogs and buns are gone before Gig can pay.

“You were hungry,” says Gig, unwrapping his granola bar when they get back to the car. “Guy in there told me about a good organic grocery store just up the road here. We’ll get foodstuffs for the rest of the day.”

“I don’t have any money,” says Biz, smiling painfully. “So you just get what you need for you.”

“No, no,” says Gig, shaking his head. “We’ll get food for both of us. I got enough for that.”

“Thank you,” says Biz, bowing his head. “Thank you so much.”

Speeding along the interstate, a bulging bag of groceries onboard, Biz says, “So where you coming from Gig?”

“Tacoma,” says Gig, eager to talk, but not wanting to seem too eager. “My wife and I moved there from Idaho five years ago, moved into a beautiful house on Puget Sound, right on the water. I owned a big music store. Power House Music.” He glances at Biz. “You mind if I tell kind of a long story?”

“No, I don’t mind,” says Biz, gobbling fig bars. “Happy to listen.”

“I appreciate that,” says Gig, on the verge of tears. “So before I met my wife seven years ago, I had a three-bedroom house and a guitar shop in Mountain Home, and I owned a duplex I rented out, too. That’s where I grew up. Mountain Home. About an hour from Boise. You know it?”

“No,” says Biz, shaking his head, “but I’ll bet it’s beautiful with all those mountains. I assume there’s mountains if they call it Mountain Home.”

“Yeah, it’s beautiful, if you like small towns, which I do. Mountains all around. Some people say it’s too windy there, but I don’t mind the wind, so… I had a good life there. Lots of friends, my sister and her family and my mom nearby. My dad died when I was thirteen.” He clears his throat. “Anyway… I liked buying and selling guitars and giving lessons, but I was missing something. You know what I mean? I thought it was a woman, only I couldn’t find anybody who fit me. I went out with some nice gals, but they didn’t get me. You know what I mean?”

“I do,” says Biz, nodding. “Somebody who understands how you see things, and likes how you see things, and you understand them and like how they see things.”

“Yeah, exactly,” says Gig, near tears again. “So there I was, forty-three and thinking I’d never find anybody, and one day I’m picking out a watermelon at the farmers market, and this gorgeous Mexican gal wants to buy one, too, and she smiles at me and I nearly faint because nobody that beautiful has ever smiled at me like that, and she says, ‘You know how to pick a good one?’ And I say, ‘Yeah. You thump’em. And if they sound like a bass drum they’re probably pretty good.’ So she asks me to pick one out for her and I carry it to her car and get her number, and four months later we were married.”

“What was her name?” asks Biz, thinking of his first wife Alicia who was half-Mexican and half-Swiss.

“Celia,” says Gig, taking a deep breath. “Celia Luisa Alvarez. Most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen. Hard to believe she would ever marry somebody like me. But she did.”

“Did she get you?” asks Biz, guessing she probably didn’t.

“Not even a little bit,” says Gig, laughing and shaking his head. “But I didn’t care because she was so beautiful and she let me love her, and we were madly in love. Or I was anyway.”

“Strong drug,” says Biz, speaking from experience. “Sex with a beautiful woman.” He forces a smile. “So were you happy?”

“For those four months before we got married I was happier than I’ve ever been,” says Gig, nodding. “Non-stop love. But then just a couple weeks after the wedding she got real moody and said she’d made a mistake and shouldn’t have married me, and I was just crushed. I mean… I loved her so much, and I thought she loved me, but she kept saying I wasn’t who she thought I was.”

“Who did she think you were?” asks Biz, frowning at Gig. “And who did you turn out to be?”

“She said she thought I was rich.” Gig frowns gravely. “But she knew what I had. We went over it a hundred times before we got married. I owned the guitar shop and the building it was in, and that was worth about three hundred thousand, though I sold the business and the building to Beckman for one-seventy-five. Beckman was a guy who worked for me. And I rented the other store in the building for eight hundred a month. I made about five hundred bucks a week selling guitars. My house was worth about three hundred thou, my duplex about two-fifty. Had about ten thousand in the bank. But Celia said she thought I was so rich she could quit her job. She was a cocktail waitress. Made huge tips. She was movie star stuff, if you know what I mean.”

“I do,” says Biz, wistfully. “Married two of that species myself.”

“They really are another species, aren’t they?” says Gig, thinking of Celia and how every time they made love he could hardly believe she was letting him inside her. “And I told her, ‘Well, you don’t have to work, honey, not if you don’t want to. We won’t live in luxury, but you don’t have to work,’ and we were planning to have kids anyway, so…”

“How old was she?” asks Biz, guessing twenty-something.

“Thirty-six. Seven years younger than me. But she looked about twenty-five.” Gig sighs. “And then she tells me she doesn’t want kids, which was totally bonkers because before we got married that’s all she talked about, how desperate she was to have kids, and I said I wanted them, too. Which was true.”

“No offense,” says Biz, scrunching up his cheeks, “but she sounds a little psycho.”

“Oh she was more than a little psycho,” says Gig, giving Biz a frightened look. “Turned out to be mega-psycho.”

“So you sold everything you owned,” says Biz, guessing the general plot of Gig’s story, “and you moved to Tacoma and gave her everything she said she wanted. But it wasn’t enough.”

“Seemed to be at first,” says Gig, wishing he could pinpoint the exact moment when everything fell apart, though he knows there was no exact moment, only a vast chasm between them from the beginning, a chasm bridged by his enormous desire to love her and be loved by her. “We had kind of a second honeymoon for a few months after we got there, and then…”

Biz looks out the window at a dense forest blurred by the speed of the car, and he thinks of his second wife Leslie, and how she tried to save their unsaveable marriage by booking the same honeymoon suite in the Las Vegas hotel where they honeymooned after their wedding and conceived their first child, and how he got tired of waiting for her to get dressed for dinner—she kept changing her outfit—so he snorted a few lines of coke and went down to the casino and had a few drinks and succumbed to a young woman who recognized him from Meet Ya After School, the sit-com in which Biz played Riley Caruthers, a likable idiot; and when he got back to the honeymoon suite the next morning, his wife was long gone.

“…she said the real problem was I was fat,” says Gig, going on with his story. “She said the problem had never been about money or where we lived, but about her not being attracted to me physically because I was fat and she’d been afraid to say anything about it.”

“But you’re not fat,” says Biz, looking at Gig. “You’re in great shape.”

“Yeah, but I was fat,” says Gig, nodding. “So I gave up sweets and fatty foods and started working out every day, and voila… I became the Adonis you see before you. But then she said the problem was that I smoked dope. So I stopped smoking dope. And then it was beer. So I stopped drinking beer.”

“When did it finally dawn on you that it didn’t matter what you did?” asks Biz, remembering his favorite rehab counselor, an ex-con who would proclaim Catch-22 whenever Biz elucidated one of his many dilemmas from which there was no escape because every escape route brought him back to the cause of the dilemma. “When did you realize she was the problem, and not you?”

“Nine months ago,” says Gig, recalling that critical moment as if watching a crystal-clear movie. “We go out to dinner and I try to pay with a credit card and the waitress comes back with the bill and the card and says, ‘Sorry but your card was rejected.’ So I give her another card, and that one’s no good either. So I give her a third card, and that’s kaput, too. Luckily, I have enough cash to pay the bill, and on the way home, Celia says, ‘You need to get us another card or get us more credit. It’s embarrassing when the cards get rejected.’ And I say, ‘Honey, these cards have twenty-five thousand dollar limits. Are you telling me you knew they were full? We don’t have seventy-five thousand dollars in play money. What’s going on?’ And she says, ‘I don’t want to talk about it right now. I’m too upset. I hate it when you yell at me.’ And I say, ‘But we have to talk about it right now. We’re in a very delicate financial position. The business is finally starting to make some real money and I can’t default on my loans or…’ and she shouts, ‘I don’t care about your fucking business. I want a divorce.’ And when we get home she jumps in her car and goes to her sister’s house and when I get home from work the next day the house is empty. She came with movers and took everything. And then I find out she got three more credit cards in my name without telling me and maxed them out getting cash, and she’s been getting cash from our cards ever since we moved to Tacoma. And then I find out she bought a fuckin’ condo with her sister. And before I can stop the bleeding I default on the big loan carrying my business and I lose everything. Everything!”

“You should pull over,” says Biz, speaking quietly. “You’re pretty upset, Gig. Pull over for a little while until you calm down.”

When they get to Pendleton Oregon mid-afternoon, Gig says to Biz, “I can’t drive any more today. I need to sleep. I’m gonna get a motel room. If you want to share it with me, I’ll get a room with two beds. But if you’re not comfortable with that, you’re welcome to sleep in the car and I’ll take you to Boise tomorrow.”

“A motel room sounds great,” says Biz, looking out at the rain. “Be nice to take a shower and get some sleep. Sounds great.”

“If I had a cell phone I could find the cheapest place,” says Gig, pulling into a gas station. “But in lieu of that, I’ll ask a human being.”

They are directed to a Motel 6 where Gig pays cash for a room with two single beds, and while Biz takes a shower, Gig sits cross-legged on the bed furthest from the bathroom, his back against the headboard, and calls the front desk.

“Hi, this is Gig Antonelli in Room 26. I don’t have a cell phone and I want to call Mountain Home Idaho. That’s not a local call, and since I didn’t put this room on a card I can’t make that call from this phone, so what do I have to do to make a long distance call from here?”

“You can come to the office and use my phone,” says the desk clerk. “Five bucks?”

“Okay,” says Gig, embarrassed not to have his own phone. “What’s your name?”

“Greg,” says the man. “Anything else?”

“No, that’s it,” says Gig, clearing his throat. “I might see you down there.”

Gig hangs up and closes his eyes, and he is so weary he falls asleep sitting up and doesn’t wake when Biz comes out of the shower and gets into the other bed and falls asleep the moment his head hits the pillow.

After an hour of sleeping sitting up, Gig wakes with a crick in his neck, takes off his clothes, and crawls under the covers.

He dreams he still owns Gig Music, the guitar shop he used to own in Mountain Home. He is standing behind the counter of the cluttered shop, unable to get the cash register open. His sole employee, Beckman, a very tall slender man, is sitting on one of the two ratty sofas playing The Beatles’ song ‘Blackbird’ on a small Martin guitar while Gig’s mother Sophia, wearing her red party dress and her faux diamond necklace, her long gray hair in a braid, sings the words. Her voice, usually high and quavering, sounds exactly like Paul McCartney.

Gig comes out from behind the counter and sings harmony with his mother, and as they sing together, his mother becomes a young African American woman and the song turns into ‘Moon River’ and Gig takes the young woman in his arms and they dance to the old love song until they begin to sink into the floor that turns into a deep pool of water and Gig begins to drown and wakes with a shout, gasping for breath.

At midnight, Biz and Gig dine on avocadoes and goat cheese and olives and seed bread and green protein drinks.

“So where were you coming from when I picked you up?” asks Gig, enjoying Biz’s company and appreciating his candor.

“Seattle,” says Biz, relieved to be gone from that crazy city. “Lived there for nine months. I was staying with a guy I went through rehab with, but I couldn’t find a job and he needed a roommate who could help with the rent so… here I am.”

“Where were you before Seattle?” asks Gig, never having given much thought to how homeless people survive until he became homeless a few months ago.

“Portland for a year,” says Biz, loving the food. “Worked in a pizza parlor. Slept in a little trailer behind the place. Me and two other guys. Juan from El Salvador and Diego from Mexico. They were both sending money home to their wives and parents, but I couldn’t save a dime. I like to go to movies and out for coffee and pastries and Mexican food and Chinese food and… Portland is food heaven if you’ve got money. But Juan and Diego made do with crappy pizza and never went anywhere, except Diego went to a massage parlor for sex every couple weeks.”

“And before Portland?” asks Gig, wondering what Biz does for sex, wondering if he’s ambidextrous, as Gig’s mother likes to call bisexuals.

“Santa Fe,” says Biz, sighing. “Lived with a woman I met in rehab. Diana.” He nods, remembering. “For two years. She lived in a little cottage behind her daughter’s mansion. Her daughter was a socialite married to a hedge fund guy.” Biz grins. “Diana’s in her sixties, but man, talk about a sexual dynamo. Fucked me silly.”

“Why’d you leave?” asks Gig, never having had sex with a woman older than he.

“What’s that expression?” says Biz, yawning. “Smothered with love?” He nods. “That’s how I felt with Diana. Couldn’t hardly breathe after a while.”

“Did you have a job?” asks Gig, thinking about looking for work in Mountain Home if he can get up the nerve to go back.

“Kind of,” says Biz, smiling wistfully. “I was writing screenplays. Hoping for a big break.” He raises his green protein drink. “Here’s to the gods of Hollywood. You never know what might happen.”

After their midnight feast, Biz falls asleep again, but Gig is wide awake, so he goes for a long walk, the night cold and clear.

When he gets back to the motel, he sees the motel office brightly-lit, a woman standing behind the counter, so he goes into the office, identifies himself, and says he wants to make a phone call in the morning and wonders if he can make an arrangement with her similar to the one he had with Paul.

“I’m here until eight and I have unlimited calling on my phone,” says the woman. She has a small nose and gray blue eyes and short blonde hair. She’s wearing a blue down jacket over a black Portland Trailblazers T-shirt, and Gig guesses she’s thirty-seven and descended from Scandinavians. “But you don’t have to pay me anything. And then Justin comes on after me and I’m sure he’ll let you use his phone for free.” She shakes her head. “That Greg. Never misses a chance to make a little extra. Can’t blame him, but… yeah, you get here before eight, no problem.”

“May I know your name?” asks Gig, liking her.

“Florence,” she says, reddening at the intimacy of telling him her name. “But everybody calls me Flo.” She arches an eyebrow. “What’s Gig short for?”

“Not really short for anything,” says Gig, remembering when he was next in line to cross the stage of the Mountain Home High School multi-purpose room to receive his diploma, and how when Mr. Frederickson leaned close to the microphone and said Lawrence Antonelli, Gig didn’t recognize his given name and just stood there waiting to hear Gig until Glenna Barnes shoved him from behind and hissed, ‘That’s you, Gig. Go!’

“Where you traveling to?” asks Flo, something in her voice suggesting to Gig that she would rather not be having this conversation.

“Mountain Home,” says Gig, stepping back from the counter. “I appreciate the future use of your phone. I’ll try to get down here before eight.”

“You want some tea?” she asks, nodding hopefully. “I was just about to make some black tea for me, but I could make you some chamomile. Help you sleep.”

“That’s very kind of you,” says Gig, smiling at the inaccuracy of his intuition. “I would love a cup of chamomile tea.”

So Flo makes their tea and Gig sits on a not-very-comfortable armchair, and Flo rolls her office chair out from behind the counter and sits a few feet away from him.

“The hardest thing about this job,” says Flo, glad to have someone to talk to, “is I’m so not a night person. As soon as Justin or Greg quits, I’ll get an earlier shift and get my life back.”

“How long have you been working graveyard?” asks Gig, noting her wedding ring.

“Almost two years,” she says, nodding wearily. “I keep thinking I’m gonna get used to it, but I never do. I get home at eight-fifteen and go to bed and sleep for a few hours. If I’m lucky. Then I get up around noon, my kids come home from school at three-thirty, we have dinner at six, I do the dishes and watch television and go to bed about eight, get up three hours later, leave the house at eleven-forty, and I’m here from midnight to eight. My days off I just drag around and try to catch up on shopping and housework and… I can’t wait for somebody to quit or get fired, but Justin’s not going anywhere and Greg keeps saying he’s moving to Portland, but he never does, so I don’t know.” She shrugs. “It’s a job. Better than no job, that’s for sure.”

“What does your husband do?” asks Gig, starting to feel the relaxing effects of the chamomile. “Assuming that’s a wedding ring on the official finger.”

“He works in a hardware store,” says Flo, her voice full of sadness. “We’ve been separated for two years. He says he wants to get back together, but I don’t. He’s a horrible pessimist. The world is out to get him. Everybody’s a crook except him. Everybody’s out to get him. I can’t live like that.”

“How old are your kids?” asks Gig, feeling a kinship with her.

“Fourteen and twelve,” she says, smiling at the thought of her children. “Boy and a girl. Aaron and Sheila.”

“Fourteen and twelve,” says Gig, feeling something shift inside him, something being released, a recalcitrant knot unfurling. “That can’t be easy. Puberty times two.”

She laughs. “They’re good kids. Thank goodness they’re smart and healthy and… but, yeah, it’s one thing after another at that age. Never a dull moment. That’s why I wish I could get on a day shift and be there for them more.”

“I believe in you, Flo,” says Gig, looking into her eyes. “And I thank you for this tea and your company. I’ll be back around seven-thirty.”

“Okay,” she says, getting up with him. “Thanks for helping me pass the time.”

“My pleasure,” he says, handing her his mug.

“Mine, too,” she says, blushing. “You’re a good person, Gig.”

Biz is sleeping soundly when Gig gets back to their room and undresses and crawls into bed.

And though Gig fears he won’t be able to sleep, he drifts into a dream of playing frisbee with Beckman in an orchard of newly planted apple trees, their exuberant game a celebration of the planting. Beckman throws the frisbee way over Gig’s head, and as Gig turns to chase the whirling disk, he realizes the frisbee is destined to slow as it meets the oncoming breeze and return to exactly where Gig is standing. With this in mind, he relaxes and waits for the disk to come to him, and as he waits, he hears his mother calling from afar, “Gee-ig. Gee-ig. Time for supper.”

At seven-thirty that morning, Gig goes to the office and Flo lends him her phone. He steps outside the office, the day dawning sunny, and after hesitating for a moment, he enters his mother’s phone number and listens to the dial tone until Sophia answers in her usual way. “Antonelli’s. Who’s calling, please?”

“It’s your erstwhile son,” says Gig, his eyes filling with tears. “Wondering if…” He can’t continue, his urge to cry too strong.

“I had a dream about you last night,” says Sophia, knowing Gig is crying. “When will you be here?”

“Mid-afternoon,” says Gig, struggling to speak. “You… you sure it’s still okay?”

“Don’t be silly, Gig,” she says, trying not to cry, too. “I’m making chicken and potatoes and salad.”

“Might bring a friend,” says Gig, thinking of Biz. “Nice guy I met. Maybe not, but…”

“That’s fine, honey. Drive safely. See you when you get here.”

Gig tries to say I love you, Mom, but he can’t stop sobbing.

He takes Biz out to breakfast at the Main Street Diner and Biz has a mushroom omelet, a stack of buttermilk pancakes, and a fruit smoothie. Gig has two eggs over easy with sausage and hash browns, and gives his toast to Biz.

“So this guy Beckman was in both your dreams,” says Biz, sipping his coffee and feeling pretty damn good. “Must be an important person in your life.”

“Yeah, he was,” says Gig, nodding. “We worked together six days a week for sixteen years, and we liked each other. He was quiet and friendly and a great guitar player. I can’t remember him ever missing a day of work. I used to get sick three or four times a year, but he never did. And you know what I just realized? Along with my mother and my sister, he was the only constant person in my life. The only constant man for sure.”

“And you’ll be seeing him soon,” says Biz, never having had a constant man in his life.

“I guess I will,” says Gig, imagining going into Gig Music again for the first time in five years. “Unless he’s not there anymore. We didn’t stay in touch so… we’ll see.”

“I think your first dream was about the past,” says Biz, nodding to the waitress as she comes to refill his coffee cup. “And I think your second dream was a prophecy of the future. A new beginning that’s coming to you.”

They reach the northern outskirts of Boise in the early afternoon, and Gig says, “So Biz, would you like to meet my mom? Hang out in Mountain Home for a few days? I asked her if that would be okay and she said it was fine with her.”

Biz forces a smile. “That’s really kind of you to offer, Gig, but my sister is expecting me, and with good luck I’ll get to Ogden tonight, and with bad luck I’ll get there tomorrow or the next day. I appreciate everything you did for me.”

“I’d like to stay in touch,” says Gig, nodding hopefully. “If you want to.”

“Yeah, I do,” says Biz, with little force. “I’ll see how things go in Ogden and then… I’ll give you a call. Your mother in the phone book?”

“Only Antonelli in town,” says Gig, feeling pretty sure he’ll never hear from Biz again. “Well, listen, now that I know I’ve got a place to live and I don’t have to worry so much about running out of money, how about I give you a little something? Get you to Ogden without starving to death.”

“That would be wonderful,” says Biz, sighing with relief. “You may not know it, Gig, but you’re some kind of angel.”

Gig drives by Gig Music on his way to his mother’s house and is startled to see the old Gig Music sign, big blocky black capital letters on a dirty white background, replaced by a much classier Gig Music sign, burgundy cursive, all lower case letters on a peach background, the new sign half the size of the old, yet much more eye-catching and intriguing.

Indeed, Gig finds the new sign so eye-catching and intriguing, he can’t resist parking in front of the shop, getting one of his guitars out of the trunk to sell for some quick cash, and hurrying to see what other changes have been made.

The front door is new, the funky glass door now solid wood painted the same burgundy as the cursive letters in the sign. And before Gig can reach out to turn the doorknob, the door opens inward automatically, a most convenient innovation for people who might be carrying guitars.

But these exterior changes are nothing compared to what awaits within. The old dark wood floor, treacherously warped, has been replaced by sunny bamboo flooring, the darkness of the high-ceilinged room no longer dispelled by fluorescent lights, but by seven large skylights and tasteful track lighting.

And the wall between Gig Music and what used to be Sylvia’s Hair Salon is now gone, the guitar shop merging seamlessly with an elegant art gallery with large paintings and photographs, landscapes and portraits, adorning the walls.

“Wow,” says Gig, awestruck. “Incredible.”

The two dilapidated sofas have been replaced by three handsome armless chairs with cushioned seats, and the wall where Gig used to display banjos and mandolins and fiddles is now a wall of guitars, each guitar spot-lit, suggesting These are works of art, too. And the big ever-cluttered counter has been replaced by a beautiful oak worktable, the cash register out of sight.

“May I help you?” asks someone calling from the art gallery; and Gig turns to behold an attractive woman wearing delicate red-framed glasses and blue jeans and sandals and a scarlet dress shirt, her long brown hair in a ponytail.

“Hello,” says Gig, waving to her. “Does Beckman still own this place?”

“Yes, he does,” she says, crossing the room to him, her accent thickly Spanish. “I recognize you. You are Gig. I’ve seen pictures of you with Julian.”

“Julian?” says Gig, half-smiling and half-frowning. “Oh, yeah. Julian. Sure. Beckman. Who are you?”

“I’m Portia,” she says, studying his face. “Julian’s wife.” She laughs. “Beckman’s wife. We invited you to our wedding three years ago, but we never heard from you, so then we sent you pictures of the wedding and our honeymoon in Spain. You didn’t get them?”

“No,” says Gig, knowing with absolute certainty that of all the things he might have forgotten in the last five years, he never would have forgotten an invitation to Beckman’s wedding and photos of the ceremony he missed. “I would have had to be in a hospital on life support not to come to Beckman’s wedding if I’d known about it.”

“You didn’t get the letters Julian wrote to you?”

“No,” says Gig, grimacing. “I don’t know why, but I didn’t.”

“I’m so sorry,” says Portia, placing a hand on her heart. “But you are here now, so we can celebrate. I’ll go get Julian. He’s just finishing up a lesson. Please, have a seat.”

So Gig sits down on one of the comfortable armless chairs and gazes around the big room at the many guitars, and he is filled with joy by the splendid transformation of this place he gave birth to.

        fin

Bernard Comes Of Age

Monday, December 24th, 2018

Age BW

Bernard Borenstein is seventy-years-old, a wiry five-foot-nine, with short frizzy gray hair growing whiter by the day. A charming person with a pleasingly deep voice and an infectious sense of humor, Bernard was born in Burbank, spent his childhood and teenage years there, and in 1972, at the age of twenty-two, bought the house in Santa Monica where he still lives today. He paid 23,000 dollars for the lovely two-bedroom home on an oversized lot three blocks from the beach, and the place is now worth at least four million dollars. Bernard paid cash for the house, the cash resulting from royalties from a song he wrote the lyrics to.

The song, ‘Where’d Our Love Get To?’ was one of ten songs Bernard wrote the lyrics for on the only album of a short-lived Hollywood rock band called Still At Large. Their self-titled album came out in 1970 and may have sold two hundred copies, but certainly no more than that.

However, ‘Where’d Our Love Get To?’ was subsequently covered by Roy McClintock of country music fame on one of his platinum albums, became a staple of country music radio stations, was covered by several other country music artists, and can still be heard today on hundreds of country oldie radio stations. Ironically, ‘Where’d Our Love Get To?’ was originally a blues ballad, and all the members of Still At Large detested country music.

Then in 1982 an instrumental jazz version of ‘Where’d Our Love Get To?’ debuted on national television as the theme song for Brad Raymond’s comedy detective show Snoop For Hire, a show that ran for nine enormously successful seasons and was then re-run for another twenty years; and every time the show aired, Bernard made money, though his lyrics were never sung on Snoop For Hire.

Had Bernard invested his royalties wisely, he would be a very rich man today, but because thirty years ago he spent his considerable savings, and then some, launching a talent agency that floundered for ten years before dying a miserable death, he is not rich.

At seventy, Bernard, twice-divorced and single for thirty years now, is a self-proclaimed Chekhov character, and by that he means he has a valuable house, no car, and enough money from Social Security and the occasional royalty check to eat well, pay his property tax, cover his gas and electric and water bills, and not much more.

He is still hoping for another big hit, and to that end he is forever collaborating with an array of acquaintances on television scripts, screenplays, and songs. Some of his co-writers are roughly his age, some are younger than he, and one guy is in his nineties and has a great grandson who is an up-and-coming agent at a major talent agency.

On a hazy morning in late August, Bernard is sitting across the table from his old pal Lou in a booth at Jean’s, a Santa Monica café and bakery that has been in business for nearly a hundred years.

“Lately when I walk by that long wall of windows next to the sidewalk at Bob’s Market,” says Bernard, sipping his coffee, “I’ll look to my right and here’s this skinny old Jewish guy with gray hair, at least twenty years older than I am. We’ll walk along together, smile at each other, maybe bounce our eyebrows, but we don’t talk. And then he goes into the store and I lose sight of him. I wonder why I keep running into this guy? Who could he be?”

“A succinct summation of your powers of denial,” says Lou, a chronically under-employed actor in his seventies who wears colorful scarves and a burgundy beret.

“Are you suggesting…” Bernard feigns a look of horror. “…the old guy is my reflection?”

“I’m suggesting you did this shtick three days ago,” says Lou, raising his hand to beckon a waitress. “It wasn’t funny then and it’s not funny now.”

“Who said it was supposed to be funny?” says Bernard, frowning at Lou.

“I’d love to continue this scintillating conversation,” says Lou, slapping a ten-dollar bill on the table, “but I have to go spend the rest of the morning deepening my already considerable debt to a dentist. At least he claims to be a dentist. It seems my one remaining tooth has yet another cavity.”

“I’ll call you,” says Bernard, wincing sympathetically as Lou grimaces when he stands up, his sciatica ferocious this morning. “Take it easy.”

“Famous last words,” says Lou, shuffling away.

The waitress, Darlene, a curvaceous gal in her thirties with curly brown hair and darting green eyes, arrives at the table. “More coffee, Bernie?”

“Yeah, why not?” he says, smiling at her. “You want to go out with me some time, Darlene?”

“Where would we go?” she asks, filling his cup.

“Take a walk on the beach,” he says, nodding hopefully. “Ethnic cuisine of your choice. Go back to my place. Watch a movie.”

“Sounds divine,” she says in a monotone. “But then my husband would kill us and I’m not ready to die.”

“Nor am I,” says Bernard, nodding his thanks for the refill. “I guess we’ll just have to make do with vivid fantasies.”

Julia Sapperstein, a big smiley woman in her fifties with shoulder-length hair dyed auburn, is sitting at Bernard’s seven-foot Mason & Hamblin grand piano in Bernard’s high-ceilinged living room, banging out chords and singing a song she and Bernard are writing together, a love ballad with the working title ‘So Why Did You Stop Calling Me?’. Julia’s voice is a pleasant tenor in the middle register, but when she strains to reach the higher notes, Bernard—making coffee and toasting bagels in the big airy kitchen adjoining the living room—cringes as if someone is scraping a chalkboard with her fingernails.

“Sorry about that,” says Julia seeing Bernard cringing. “Mary said she could maybe come sing this for us on Thursday. You free at two on Thursday?”

“I’ll move my appointment with George Clooney to four,” says Bernard, shrugging. “Let him wait. What else has he got to do?”

“You have an appointment with George Clooney?” says Julia, frowning at Bernard. “The George Clooney?”

“No, a George Clooney,” says Bernard, laughing.

“Have you ever met the George Clooney?” asks Julia, innocently.

“No,” says Bernard, shaking his head. “I’ve seen him in a number of movies and I once saw him walking a dog on the beach right here in Santa Monica. At least I think it was George. He had George’s face and demeanor and gait and charisma, so I assumed it was he.”

“Why would he have been walking a dog on the beach here and not in Malibu?” asks Julia, having a hard time imagining George Clooney on the Santa Monica beach. “What kind of dog?”

“You know, come to think of it,” says Bernard, pouring two mugs of coffee, “it wasn’t a dog. It was a lion.”

“You’re kidding,” says Julia, getting up from the piano and joining Bernard in the dining nook.

“Now she thinks I’m kidding,” says Bernard, glancing at an imaginary audience. “No wonder she’ll sleep with me.”

“Yes, I will,” says Julia, smiling sweetly at Bernard. “And that’s no joke.”

Julia leaves Bernard snoozing in his king-sized bed and writes him a note on a large blue post-it she affixes to his thirty-year-old answering machine on the kitchen counter.

Dear Bernie,

Thank you for a most wonderful time today. I think our song is turning out gangbusters. I can’t wait to hear somebody with a good voice sing it. You’re the best.

Julia

A half-hour after Julia leaves, Bernard wakes from a dream of arm-wrestling with Scarlet Johansson while pitching her an idea for a movie about the reincarnation of Marilyn Monroe. He takes a moment to enjoy what he remembers most vividly about the dream, the lovely glow in Scarlet’s cheeks, and reminds himself he just had sex with Julia, not Heather with whom he also writes songs and occasionally has sex.

He listens for any sounds indicating Julia is still in the house, and hearing none, he gets out of bed, puts on his blue terrycloth bathrobe, and wanders down the hall to the kitchen where he finds the note from Julia and sees the red light on his answering machine blinking.

The first message is from his only progeny, his son Mason, calling from Oregon. “Hey Dad. Got the check. Thank you so much. We’re doing fine, but every little bit helps. So… can you come visit sometime in the next couple months? We’ve been here five years and you haven’t seen the place yet. Gorgeous here in the fall. The kids would love to see you, and so would Nina. I know it’s a long drive, but I really want to see you and show you all the work we’ve done on this amazing place you helped us get. Love you.”

The second message is from Les Cutler, Bernard’s co-writer of ‘Where’d Our Love Get To?’ and the former bass player of Still At Large. “Bernie. Les. When the fuck are you gonna get a cell phone? I never can get you when I want you. Call me as soon as you get this. And get a fucking cell phone.”

The third message is from David Chapman, one of Bernard’s younger collaborators, a college friend of Mason’s with great expectations of becoming a successful screenwriter. “Hi Bernie. It’s David. I’m slightly desperate to read you these new scenes. I incorporated all our new ideas and I think we’re really onto something here. Call me. Bye.”

“What a life I have,” says Bernard, looking around his comfortable little house. “If only one of my projects would pop and I could make some serious money again. But nothing ever pops. Nothing has popped since I was a kid and got lucky with a song. Yet I still believe something is gonna pop any day now because once upon a time something did.”

Bernard dons his mustard yellow Los Angeles Lakers sweat suit, loads his blue Dodgers tote bag with towel and sunblock and notebook and pen, steps into his beach sandals, walks the three blocks to the beach, buys a fish taco from his favorite mobile taqueria, and dines on the sand just north of the Santa Monica pier, the afternoon balmy, beauties in bikinis abounding.

“How can I be seventy?” he asks the roaring waves as he watches two young women wearing the equivalent of nothing playing Frisbee on the edge of the surf. “I’m old enough to be their grandfather, yet I have no trouble imagining being married to either of them, especially the brunette, and carrying on as if I am twenty-five.”

Having said this, Bernard has a revelation. If I had not been obsessed with having another success equal to or greater than ‘Where’d Our Love Get To?’ I could have stayed married to either of my wives and created a shared life instead of a life all about me striving for another hit.

“But what can I do about that now?” he asks, following the flight of the Frisbee back and forth between the two young women. “Knowing is not the same as changing, and I am, after all, seventy. Furthermore, what’s wrong with striving for another hit? Certainly better than just waiting to die.”

Home again, Bernard calls David and invites him to come over at four and read the new scenes. And because David’s parting words are, “Say hi to Mason for me next time you talk to him,” Bernard calls Mason.

“Dad?” says Mason, sounding like a boy to Bernard, though Mason is forty-four. “A daytime call? This is unprecedented. What’s going on?”

“Not much,” says Bernard, thinking of Maureen, Mason’s mother, and how she begged him to sell the house and move with her to Seattle, but Bernard wouldn’t leave Santa Monica, so Maureen divorced him and took twelve-year-old Mason with her. “Just returning your call.”

“You gonna come visit?” asks Mason, his voice full of hope.

“I’d love to,” says Bernard, realizing his brain is stuck on a picture of Mason at twelve. “How does October sound? I’ll juggle some things and zip up there for a few days.”

“Oh you gotta stay for at least a week,” says Mason, decisively. “Takes two days to get here. And thanks again for the check. We really appreciate it. And just so you know, that amount gets you an engraved tile in the bathroom in the guest house, which is almost done.”

“The bathroom or the guest house?” says Bernard, fighting his tears.

“Both,” says Mason, laughing. “Hey, can I call you back tonight after I talk to Nina and we’ll get something on the calendar?”

“Yeah, call me tonight,” says Bernard, starting to cry. “Be great to see you.”

After he hangs up, Bernard cries so hard for so long, he soaks his clothes and has to change before he calls Les.

“Your daughter?” says Bernard, frowning into the phone. “Which daughter? You have three, don’t you? Or is it four?”

“It’s four,” says Les, who also has five sons. “And I’m speaking of Grace, my oldest. Jenny is thirty-eight, a successful interior designer, Serena is twenty-nine and having a ball as an international flight attendant, and Crystal is six. Why would I want any of them to live with you?”

“So why do you want Grace to come live with me?” asks Bernard, sitting down at his kitchen counter. “How old is she now? Forty?”

“She’s fifty-two,” says Les, shouting. “You’ve known her since she was a baby. You used to give her piggyback rides. She adored you until you stopped coming to visit.”

“As I recall,” says Bernard, resisting his impulse to join Les in shouting, “I stopped coming to visit because your second and third wife couldn’t stand me. Remember?”

“Yeah, I remember,” says Les, lowering his voice. “They couldn’t stand me either.”

“So if Grace needs a place to stay,” asks Bernard, having a hard time imagining sharing his house with anyone unless he’s married to them or he’s their father, “why can’t she stay with you?”

“Because she’s been living with us for six weeks now, and Carol says if Grace stays another week, she’s leaving me.”

“Why?” asks Bernard, perplexed by Les’s request. “If Carol can’t stand her, what makes you think I’ll be able to?”

“Because she’s a sweetheart and I’ll pay you. Two thousand dollars a month. And I know you’re gonna ask why I don’t just get her an apartment? Because she needs to live with someone, Bernie. She survived two horrendous marriages, raised two kids all by herself and did a damn good job. They’re both in college now, and she’s alone and lonely and… she’s out of gas. Lost. You know? But she’s a great gal, Bernie. She remembers you. She loved you. Please?”

“So suddenly I’m a babysitter?” says Bernard, wincing. “Jesus, Les. How would you feel if I asked you to take in my middle-aged son?”

“It’s not the same thing. You don’t have anybody there. I’ve got a wife and two kids. Will you at least talk to her? As a favor to your old friend?”

And only because Bernard feels beholden to Les for ‘Where’d Our Love Get To?’ he says, “Sure, I’ll talk to her. Come for breakfast tomorrow.”

The Reincarnation of Marilyn Monroe?” says David, a tall round-shouldered guy with short blond hair and huge back-framed glasses. “Starring Scarlet Johansson?”

“Thus spake my dream,” says Bernard, bringing two bottles of beer into the living room where David is about to read some new scenes to Bernard from the two screenplays they’re writing together, one a comedy romance set in the 1960s, the other a noir murder mystery set in the 1930s.

“Bernie, that’s genius,” says David, gaping at Bernard. “Scarlet would kill to play the part of Marilyn. They have the same mouth, the same cheekbones, the same body. Scarlet was made to play that part. Immediately. Before she gets any older.”

“What part?” asks Bernie, handing David a beer. “It’s an idea. What’s the plot? Is Marilyn doomed to relive her tragic life? Does she grow up happy and become a veterinarian and have three delightful children? Is she born poor and black in Mississippi? Or rich and Jewish in Beverly Hills? Is she perhaps a man this time? Does she run for President and win, only to be assassinated? What part?”

“All of the above,” says David, getting up from the sofa and pacing around the room. “She is born again and again, always essentially Marilyn, yet living different lives. My God, if we could pitch this to Scarlet, she’d option it before we finished pitching!”

“You think?” says Bernard, accustomed to David’s enthusiasm for outlandish ideas. “I don’t have her current phone number. Do you?”

“I’m this close to getting a good agent,” says David, showing Bernard a tiny space between the thumb and index finger of his right hand. “And when I get her, she’ll set up the pitch.”

“Oh, it’s a her this week,” says Bernard, dubiously. “Last week wasn’t it Larry Somebody at ICM?”

“Shirley Daytona,” says David, nodding assuredly. “At CTA.”

“David, listen to the voice of experience,” says Bernard, pretending his beer bottle is a microphone. “Beware women agents and actresses and artists who take the names of cities for their last names. If you dig just below the surface, you’ll find someone who is ashamed of being Jewish, and an agent who is ashamed of being Jewish is… well… silly. And who wants a silly agent?”

“If she can sell one of our scripts, she can be Bozo the Clown,” says David, taking a long swig of beer. “Shall I read you our new scenes?”

“I’m dying to hear them,” says Bernard, who enjoys working with David more than with any of his other collaborators. Why is that? Because he remains undaunted in the face of my relentless cynicism, and because he genuinely likes me, and he thinks I have talent. I should be nicer to him. From now on, I will be.

When David is done reading the new scenes, Bernard has another revelation, which he elucidates to David.

“It occurs to me that we set these movies in the idealized past because we find contemporary life dreary and hopeless and uninteresting. But why not set these stories in the present and reveal the humor and mystery of today? Maybe the reason we’re having so much trouble getting these scripts right is because we’re avoiding our field of expertise, which is being alive now.”

“I hear you,” says David, giving Bernard a pained look. “But I hate contemporary movies. Everybody’s on cell phones, everybody’s either fucked up or an idiot or a snide asshole or a clueless bimbo or an ideal person married to a rotten person and somebody’s always dying of cancer and everybody’s having an affair or they’re gorgeous but all alone and there’s always someone contemplating suicide and someone addicted to drugs or porno, and even when there’s a somewhat happy ending, the world is still rotten.”

“Right, but that’s not how it will be in our movies.” Bernard smiles warmly at David. “Our movies will reveal the divine in the every day.”

“And no one will buy them,” says David, despondently.

“Maybe not,” says Bernard, nodding in agreement. “Probably not. So shall we write a movie about a wizard who is also a vampire who is also a corrupt politician having an affair with a teenager addicted to porno?”

“Yes!” says David, excitedly. “And only one person can stop the vampire wizard politician. A woman with super powers from another planet.”

“I’ve got just the title,” says Bernard, pausing momentously. “The Reincarnation of Marilyn Monroe.”

“Now this we can sell,” says David, pointing at Bernie. “You laugh, but this we could sell. Tomorrow.”

After supper, Bernard gets a call from Mason, and when they have agreed on an October date for Bernard’s trip to Oregon, Bernard realizes he is afraid to leave Los Angeles, afraid to venture into the unknown.

Getting ready for bed, Bernard takes a long look at himself in the bathroom mirror and decides he likes his face, likes his smile, likes the spirit animating him; and he says to his reflection, “Yes, I am seventy, and yes I’m afraid to leave Los Angeles, but there is an undeniable youthful vibrancy to my je nes sais quoi, and so long as I feel this way, I shall not despair.”

Bernard is making hash browns and scrambled eggs and coffee and toast when Les and his daughter Grace arrive.

Les, his red hair lost to baldness, was an avid surfer and skier until he was thirty-five and broke his leg in six places in a skiing accident. When his leg healed, he took up bicycle riding and was a maniacal biker until he turned fifty and his fourth marriage collapsed. Now he is seventy-two, married to a woman in her thirties, and he is uncomfortably overweight. And though he never wrote another song after his band Still At Large broke up in 1972, he parlayed the money he earned from ‘Where’d Our Love Get To?’ into a huge fortune in real estate.

Grace is a pleasant surprise to Bernard. He hasn’t seen her since she was a sultry beauty in her twenties, an aspiring actress and singer. She is a mature beauty now, with short brown hair and a lovely figure, though she no longer affects sultriness.

She stopped acting and singing when she married at twenty-seven and threw herself into raising her two children, Timothy and Kathy, and being a devoted wife to a show biz scoundrel who left her when the kids were two and six months. She remarried a year later; her second husband a narrow-minded misogynist with inherited millions. She had two miscarriages with him, after which he divorced her.

Single again at thirty-three, her kids five and three, Grace got a job as a secretary at a Mercedes dealership, rented a small apartment in Studio City, and raised her kids on her own with no help from her mother who had moved back to France after leaving Les when Grace was seven, and with little help from Les who was busy supporting his series of wives and the children he fathered with them.

Grace’s children are now twenty-two and twenty, and both are attending college courtesy of Les. Grace works thirty-hours-a-week in a bookstore in Culver City and Les gives her five hundred dollars a month. And though her life has not been easy, she is an inherently positive person, empathetic and thoughtful and warm.

Ten minutes into breakfast, Les looks at his cell phone and says, “Shit. I have to be in Century City yesterday.”

And in the next moment, he’s out the door.

Grace smiles shyly at Bernard and says, “That was unconvincing.”

“I dislike cell phones,” says Bernard, glad Les is gone. “So many people use them to tinker with the truth. Have you noticed? More coffee?”

“I’m fine,” says Grace, who is also glad her father is gone. “At least regarding coffee.”

“What about regarding everything else?” asks Bernard, sad to think of such a delightful person being alone in the world.

“I’m actually pretty okay regarding everything else, too,” she says, liking Bernard’s directness. “It’s true I’m not very good at making money, but I’m happy most of the time, glad to be alive.”

“Les says you’re lonely,” says Bernard, sighing in sympathy.

“I’ve never not been lonely,” she says, matter-of-factly. “Maybe before my mother left I wasn’t lonely, but I can’t remember that far back.”

“You were lonely living with your kids?” asks Bernard, frowning. “Lonely for what, do you think?”

“A soul mate,” she says simply. “I’ve never had one. Or even a soul friend.”

“I’ve heard of soul mates,” says Bernard, getting up to make more coffee. “I think they’re found in the same eco-systems as unicorns.”

“You’ve never had one either?” says Grace, gazing in wonder at him. “That surprises me. You’re such a sweet person.”

“Me?” says Bernard, pointing at himself. “Sweet? I’m a caustic old narcissist.”

“Oh honey,” says Grace, her eyes sparkling. “I’ve known a hundred world-class best-in-show narcissists, and not one of them would ever admit to being a narcissist.”

“I was quoting my two ex-wives and several former friends,” says Bernard, filling the coffee maker with water. “But maybe I’m not a narcissist. Maybe I’m just a selfish egotist.”

“Why do you say you’re selfish?” asks Grace, smiling curiously. “A selfish person wouldn’t even entertain the idea of sharing his house with the middle-aged daughter of his annoying old friend. Just because you take care of yourself doesn’t mean you’re selfish. Why conflate self-love with selfishness?”

Pondering this, Bernard realizes he loves looking at Grace, loves her voice, loves her mind, loves the cadence of her speech, and loves her desire to go below the surface of things. Yes, he is attracted to her sexually, but far transcendent of this attraction, he wants to be her friend.

Four days after Grace moves into Bernard’s second bedroom, formerly his office, Bernard and Julia Sapperstein are in Bernard’s living room, Julia playing the piano and slaughtering the high notes of their song, working title ‘So Why Don’t You Call Me Anymore?’ while Bernard sits on the sofa cringing.

At which moment, Grace comes home from working at the bookstore, looking smart in a long gray skirt and billowy turquoise blouse. Bernard introduces Grace to Julia, Grace heads for her bedroom, and Bernard forestalls her exit by saying, “Grace? Would you be up for singing the song Julia and I are working on? The high notes elude us.”

“Sure,” says Grace, smiling at Julia. “Just let me change out of my bookstore uniform into something less constricting.”

When Grace is out of earshot, Julia glares at Bernard and whisper-shouts, “You didn’t say she was gorgeous. And why did you ask her to sing our song?”

“Because she has a great voice,” says Bernard, speaking quietly. “She was a pro before she had kids. Wouldn’t you like to hear a pro sing our song?”

“Are you fucking her?” asks Julie, squinting angrily at Bernard.

“No,” says Bernard, admitting to himself that the only thing he really likes about Julia is having sex with her.

Grace returns in jeans and a sweatshirt, goes to the piano, stands beside Julia and sings the words from the sheet music as Julia plays—Grace’s voice so fine, she makes the not-very-original song sound fabulous.

“Wow,” says Julia, smiling red-faced at Grace. “That was great. Will you sing on our demo?”

“Sure,” says Grace, sauntering into the kitchen and putting a kettle on for tea. “Would you like a little feedback about your song?”

“Please,” says Bernard, nodding eagerly. “You made it sound positively Bacharachian.”

“What are you, a mind reader?” says Grace, frowning at Bernard. “Because what I was thinking was… the melody is pretty close to ‘The Look of Love’ and you might want to modify…”

“Not true,” says Julia, defiantly folding her arms. “Just because it reminds you of that song doesn’t mean it sounds like that song.”

“You’re right,” says Grace, regretting saying anything about the song. “Lots of songs sound like other songs.”

“The melody isn’t even close to ‘The Look of Love’” says Julia, glaring hatefully at Grace. “That’s just how you sang it. The actual notes are not what you sang.”

“I’m sorry,” says Grace, looking away. “I’m out of practice. Sorry.”

“I have to go,” says Julia, snatching the music off the piano and grabbing her purse and stalking to the door.

“Julia, wait,” says Bernard, following her out the now open front door.

He catches up to her at her car where she turns on him and growls, “Why didn’t you say something when she accused me of plagiarism?”

“Us,” says Bernard, never having seen or imagined this side of Julia. “You and I both wrote the song.”

I wrote the melody!” shouts Julia. “You wrote the words. She didn’t say you stole the words from Hal David. She said I stole the melody from Burt Bacharach.”

“She didn’t say that,” says Bernard, shaking his head. “She said the melodies were similar, which they are. So what? As you said, lots of songs sound like other songs.”

“I didn’t say that, she did,” says Julia, opening her car door. “And I will never come here again as long as she lives here. You’re a shit, Bernie. A total shit.”

“I beg to differ,” says Bernard, pained by this sad demise of his relationship with Julia. “I just wanted to hear someone with a good voice sing our song. And I thought it was beautiful. And on that note, I think we should end our collaboration.”

“You used me,” says Julia, getting into her car. “You used me until you could ensnare somebody younger.”

“First of all, she’s not younger than you,” says Bernard, his sorrow changing to anger. “Second of all, I have not ensnared her. Third of all, you and I used each other as good lovers will, and you know it. And finally of all, I wish you well, Julia. I really do.”

Two weeks into Grace’s residency in the House of Bernard, after sharing Chinese takeout and a bottle of wine, Grace and Bernard retire to the living room and Grace accompanies herself on Bernard’s grand piano and sings for him—Bernard sitting on the sofa and thinking I’ve died and gone to heaven.

When Grace finishes her song, Bernard gapes at her. “You wrote that?”

“Yeah,” she says, nodding and laughing and blushing.

“When?” he asks, astounded by her voice and her tender love song.

“Just… in the last few days. Whenever you weren’t here.”

“God, Grace, it’s fantastic. There were a few lines that could use a little syllabic massaging, but otherwise it’s stunning.”

“I was hoping you’d help me with the lyrics,” she says, smiling shyly. “I mean… I think it would be fun to write songs with you.”

“I think so, too,” says Bernard, the back of his neck tingling. “There’s only one small problem. You’re about fifty thousand times more talented than I am.”

“That’s not true,” she says, playing a series of eloquent chords. “You’re a wizard with words.”

Three weeks into Grace’s residency, Bernard and Grace throw a little party on a Saturday night, hors d’oeuvres and drinks, for about twenty people, mostly Bernard’s friends, but a few of Grace’s bookstore pals, too, the highlight of the evening Grace performing the two songs she’s written with Bernard since coming to live with him.

Bernard introduces Grace’s performance by standing at the piano and saying to the assembled guests, “You’ll all be relieved to know I will not be singing tonight, not audibly. I contributed a little bit in the way of lyric tampering on the first song Grace will sing while accompanying herself on piano, and I wrote a good many of the lyrics of the second song Grace will sing accompanying herself on guitar. As you know, I made a good deal of money from a song I wrote shortly after emerging from puberty, but I can say without a doubt that the musical high point of my life has been collaborating with Grace on these songs.”

While Grace enthralls the guests, Bernard stands in the kitchen, singing along in a whisper and deciding to continue his collaboration with David, and possibly with Alida Schultz on their sitcom The Chess Club, and with Grace, of course, but to end his other collaborations and henceforth focus on quality not quantity.

Karl Sharansky is ninety-one and lives with Maureen, his attendant and cook, in an elegant apartment on the eleventh floor of a twenty-two story apartment building on Wilshire Boulevard in Beverly Hills. Maureen is seventy-four, Irish, and loves working for Karl. He naps prodigiously, eats two meals a day, and is a funny affable person with no end of money from the chain of do-it-yourself car washes he started in the 1960s.

Not owning a car, Bernard takes a cab from Santa Monica to Karl’s apartment on Wilshire, and over a delicious shrimp salad in Karl’s dining room, Bernard has to shout to be heard because Karl forgot to put in his hearing aids and keeps squinting at Bernard and saying, “Come again, Bernie?”

Hearing Bernard shouting, Maureen hurries into the dining room with Karl’s hearing aids, pops them into Karl’s ears, and disappears into the kitchen to make coffee.

“Say again,” says Karl, smiling at Bernard. “You’ve taken up mouse skating and smoking cigars? Never heard of mouse skating. Is that a thing you do with a computer mouse? So many new things all the time now. Who can keep track? Of course I know all about smoking cigars, but what is mouse skating?”

“No, I have a housemate now,” says Bernard, laughing. “And she plays the guitar and sings like an angel. She’s the daughter of an old friend.”

Karls sighs. “All my old friends are dead now. Well, not Maury Klein, but he might as well be dead. Stares into space all day. God only knows what he’s thinking about. If I ever get like that, shoot me. Please.”

“So…” says Bernard, relieved to be able to speak at a normal volume, “I brought the latest draft of our movie. I think you’ll like it, Karl.”

“You already made the changes I suggested?” says Karl, frowning gravely. “So fast?”

“Two weeks is not so fast,” says Bernard, deciding now is the time to end his collaboration with Karl and just be his friend. “My new housemate happens to be a blazing fast typist full of good ideas, and she helped me with this final draft. Oh, and I decided to set the story in present-day Los Angeles instead of in the 1950s.”

“Present-day?” says Karl, wrinkling his nose. “With talking computers and smart phones and cars that drive themselves? Why?”

“It works better this way,” says Bernard, nodding assuredly. “After lunch I’ll read it to you.”

“I have a better idea,” says Karl, winking at Bernard. “Sonny’s coming over to meet you and we’ll hand him the script together. You put in the deli scene? When Ruth tells Maurice she’s leaving him?”

“I put it in,” says Bernard, laughing. “It’s a scream.”

“Of course it’s a scream,” says Karl, laughing with him. “We’re comic geniuses.”

Bernard and Karl are having coffee and cookies in the living room with Richard Sharansky AKA Sonny, when Karl has to go to the bathroom and leaves Bernard alone with Richard.

“Karl pay you to write this script?” asks Richard, fixing Bernard with a steely gaze. “How much?”

“He paid me in lunches and coffee and cookies,” says Bernard, smiling at Richard. “I understand why you would think I might be taking advantage, but I’m not. I’ve known Karl for thirty-five years. I had a small talent agency long ago and represented his granddaughter Sophie, who would be, I think, your aunt.”

Richard taps the script on the coffee table and says, “Three things. This any good? Can you send me a PDF? What’s your arrangement with Karl?”

“The script is better than good,” says Bernard, appreciating Richard’s candor. “Yes, I can send you a PDF. Our deal is fifty-fifty. Shall I send you a copy of our contract?”

“Yes, please,” says Richard, handing Bernard a business card. “What’s the pitch?”

“A charming but shy young woman and her delightfully droll gay friend decide to open a bakery. To do so, they enlist the help and money of their grandparents, a snobby British guy and an ironic French lesbian. Chaos ensues, genders are bent, love conquers all.”

“I like it,” says Richard, whipping out his cell phone. “Repeat that.”

Bernard recites the pitch again for Richard to record, and this time Richard laughs.

“When the agent laughs, good things follow,” says Bernard, knowing very well he may never see or hear from Richard again, but relishing the moment.

“Who said that?” asks Richard, liking Bernard despite his tendency not to like anyone.

“I did,” says Bernard, getting up to go. “I’ll send you that PDF as soon as I get back to command headquarters in Santa Monica, and then I’ll alert the sentries to be on the lookout for the Brinks truck.”

“It’s all he talks about,” says Richard, laughing as he shakes Bernard’s hand. “The movie he’s writing with Bernie.”

On the one-month anniversary of Grace living with Bernard, two days before Bernard is scheduled to leave for Oregon, Bernard and Grace go out for Thai food, and Bernard invites Grace to continue living with him. She accepts with tears in her eyes and asks if she can count on staying for at least another few months and would it be okay for her kids to come stay with her now and then.

“Yes, of course,” says Bernard, clinking his glass of beer with her glass of wine. “Mi casa es su casa.”

“Tu,” she says, smiling at him. “We’ve lived together for a month now, Bernie. You can use the familiar. Not that you couldn’t have from the get go.”

“Is that what that is?” says Bernard, clinking his glass to her glass once more. “Tu es familiar. Mi casa es tu casa.”

“Gracias,” she says, smiling brightly. “I’m so grateful to you, Bernie. I feel like… I feel like I’m standing on solid ground for the first time in… forever.”

“I’m glad,” he says, taking a deep breath. “While I’m shaking in my shoes about going to Oregon. Every five minutes I think about calling Mason and cancelling, but… I don’t know. I want to go, but I’m afraid to go.” He looks away, ashamed of himself. “Last night I woke up in such a panic, I thought I was having a heart attack. It’s stupid, I know, but… I haven’t left LA in thirty years, and only a few times before that. I feel like an idiot, but… well, I’ll figure it out.”

“What are you afraid of?” she asks gently. “Or what do you think you’re afraid of?”

“Oh… dying,” he says, looking at her and laughing anxiously. “What else is there to be afraid of?”

She thinks for a moment. “Would you like me to come with you?”

Startled by her suggestion, Bernard says, “Would you like to come with me?”

“Yeah,” she says, eagerly. “I haven’t been out of LA since… forever.”

“And here the one thing I was not feeling anxious about was leaving my house unattended because you were gonna be there,” says Bernard, giddy with happiness. “And now you’re coming with me.”

“Is that an invitation?” she says, arching an eyebrow. “Sort of sounded like one.”

“Yes,” he says, nodding humbly. “I would very much like you to come with me.”

They leave Santa Monica in their zippy blue rental car at five in the morning to beat the craziness on the freeways, and when they are an hour north of Paso Robles on Highway 101, Bernard driving and Grace gazing out the window at the passing beauty, they feel themselves leaving the gravitational pull of Los Angeles; and they turn to each other and exchange looks of excitement and wonder.

During a late lunch at a Chinese restaurant in Redding, Grace studies maps of California and Oregon and suggests they take Highway 299 from Redding to Arcata and make the rest of the trip to Yachats, Oregon via the coast.

“I love the idea of getting off the freeway,” says Bernard, taking a deep breath to quell his anxiety. “But what if the car breaks down? How will we survive out there in the middle of nowhere?”

“Maybe we won’t,” says Grace, slowly shaking her head. “But at least we’ll die together.”

“And believe it or not,” says Bernie, gesturing for the waiter to bring the check, “that’s a great comfort to me.”

“To me, too,” says Grace, gazing lovingly at him. “How about I drive for a while?”

Moments after they head west on Highway 299, where the four-lane road becomes two lanes, they feel they have entered a whole new world.

“This is fantastic,” says Bernard, gazing ahead in wonder as the road carries them up through the foothills into the mountains. “I love this. So much.”

“Me, too,” says Grace, her heart pounding. “And we’ve barely started.”

 ∆

Elated from their long drive from Redding through the spectacular mountain range to the coast, they have supper at a Mexican restaurant in Crescent City, after which they go to the Ocean View Inn to get rooms for the night, another seven hours of driving awaiting them on the morrow.

At the check-in desk, a friendly young woman wearing granny glasses says, “Just the two of you? No pets? Non-smoking? I’ve got one room left with a view of the beach, but there’s only a queen in that one. If you want a king and don’t need a view, I’ve got three of those available.”

“We’re getting two rooms,” says Bernard, smiling at the young woman.

She looks from Bernard to Grace and back to Bernard. “I’ve got a room with two queens. Eighty dollars less than getting two rooms.”

“What do you think?” says Bernie, turning to Grace.

“Up to you,” she says, resting her hand on his shoulder.

“No,” he says, blushing at her touch. “I want you to decide.”

     fin

Olden Days

Monday, February 26th, 2018

still I'm still here

Still I’m Still Here painting by Nolan Winkler 

A friend recently (2018) sent me an article about a small vacant lot zoned for a single-family dwelling in Palo Alto, California, just a little plot of land, selling for seven million dollars. In another article about a housing development the San Francisco Giants are financing in San Francisco near their ballpark, the big excitement about the project is that 40% of the 1300 units of housing will be rented to working-class families only earning 80-150 thousand dollars a year.

Hmm. I have never been a big fan of science fiction. As a teenager I enjoyed I, Robot and a few other classics, but in general sci-fi has never been my cup of tea. For one thing, we can’t go faster than the speed of light, so we’re stuck here. Why can’t we just accept that and fully embrace the here and now and figure out how to live sustainably on this planet instead of dreaming about going to other planets we will never get to? For another thing, who can relate to a reality in which a family with an annual income of 150 thousand dollars is thought to be working class? In that reality would a homeless person be pulling down fifty grand a year?

In any case, these nutty financial figures got me thinking about my youth in Palo Alto and San Francisco, when seven million dollars would have bought you two hundred nice houses and their lots in Palo Alto, and a hundred grand a year would have made you filthy rich in San Francisco. Yes, I know, inflation and all that, but not really. According to our government, and you’ll know this if you depend on Social Security income as I do, there is no inflation to speak of and hasn’t been any inflation for the last decade. (Oh, that’s right. They don’t count food prices or rent or much of anything in their calculations. I wonder why not.)

When I attended Woodside High School, my pals Rico and David and I put out a mimeographed counter-culture magazine called Lyceum. We had several dozen subscribers and sold copies at Kepler’s Books in Menlo Park, and when, after eight issues, we folded up shop because David and I were going off to college and we’d run out of things to say, Rico reported we had amassed a profit of eighty dollars. We decided to celebrate by taking three lovely young women for a day and evening of fun in San Francisco.

The year was 1967, the month was June. Our budget was eighty dollars. For the six of us. The three writer editors dressed as wannabe North Beach poets, the three lucky women, under the command of my girlfriend, wore saris. By the end of our long day, the gals would regret that clothing choice. We took the train from Menlo Park to San Francisco, took the bus from there to Chinatown, and after a splendid meal in a Chinese restaurant, we wandered around for a few hours shopping for volumes of poetry and gaudy scarves.

Exhausted by our wandering, we had lattes and biscotti at Caffe Trieste in North Beach and then went for all we could eat supper at the Spaghetti Factory. Well-stuffed, we waddled across North Beach and saw The Committee perform. And though I didn’t understand most of what those witty people said or why the audience found them so riotously funny, I felt sophisticated and worldly and adult and hip. Then we caught a bus back to the train station and rode home triumphantly out of money, our eighty dollars covering everything the six of us did and saw and consumed on that day.

Over the ensuing fifty years, I have only twice earned more than a hundred thousand dollars in a year, my average annual income being in the fifteen to twenty thousand dollar range, some years less, rarely more. I have scraped by, so to speak, yet whilst scraping by I lived in a beautiful room in a big house right on the beach in Santa Cruz and my rent was thirty-five dollars a month, and I lived in a lovely house in Ashland, Oregon, my rent sixty dollars a month. And fairly recently I lived in a nice house in a quiet neighborhood in Berkeley before the erasure of rent control ended the era of reasonable rents. And Rico lived for many years in a prime location in San Francisco and paid 270 a month for a spacious two-bedroom flat.

When I dropped out of college in 1969, I didn’t worry about money, though I had almost no money. The reason I didn’t worry was that in those days it took very little effort to earn enough money to rent a room and buy enough food to eat, and by very little effort I mean a few hours a day earning a couple bucks an hour covered my expenses. A visit to the doctor was ten bucks, and if he or she prescribed antibiotics, a few dollars more. For some years I made my living playing the guitar and singing in taverns and cafes. Ten bucks and a hearty meal and free beer plus tips amounting to another ten bucks all for a few hours of strumming and singing. Three such gigs a week meant I was making around sixty dollars a week. I was rolling in dough!

I was able to pursue my writing and music because things, the necessities of a decent life, did not cost much. Money was important, but not all important. Today, however, when a loaf of bread is seven dollars and brown rice is $2.50 a pound, and when we visited Portland and saw vast armies of homeless people living in the streets, and when I stand in line at the grocery store and watch the high school kids spending ten dollars for a bottle of pop and a bag of chips and a candy bar and my friend’s daughter pays 1200 a month for space in a house in Berkeley she shares with five other people, I wonder what the young Todd I used to be would do in today’s world to survive and still be able to work at writing and composing music.

I have no idea what I would do if I was twenty today and embarking on my life as an artist. Everything I did in my life was predicated on being able to live on next to nothing. I travelled by hitchhiking or bus, I never went to Europe, I rarely ate at restaurants, I didn’t own a car or have health insurance. I just got by. And that was enough for me so long as I had time to make my art. But what if I hadn’t been able to live on next to nothing. What would I have done?

Four Chairs

Tuesday, January 5th, 2016

four chairs

Four Chairs photograph by Marcia Sloane

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser January 2016)

“All I ask is the chance to prove that money can’t make me happy.” Spike Milligan

Marcia and I recently bought four new chairs for our dining nook, and I think the way we got these chairs and the feelings they inspired will be of interest to people of my generation, those of us born in America between 1945 and 1955 or thereabouts. We were teenagers and young adults during the world-changing era known as the Sixties, which I believe lasted roughly from 1963 to 1975. By no coincidence those are also the years of the American chapter of the Vietnam War.

Exhaustive economic studies have found that my generation, despite the mythos of the Sixties, is the most materialistic generation to ever live on this earth. Whether that is true or not, when I and many of my age peers were in our twenties, we rejected the materialism of our parents and the larger society and chose lives of intentional simplicity, a choice that profoundly shaped my life ever after.

For one thing, choosing to live lightly on Mother Earth separated me from the vast majority of other people in America and made me keenly aware of the hierarchic nature of our social system, a hierarchy based on how much money and possessions a person has. Thus by choosing to have little, I found myself at the bottom of the heap, but because many of us made this choice in the Sixties, I did not feel lost and alone. On the contrary, I felt encouraged and excited about the potential for societal change that material minimalism and egalitarian socialism promised.

Anyway, the Sixties fizzled out, the so-called hippies became ravenous materialists, and those of us who remained true to the ethos of the Sixties found little support for our ideas and proclivities. Had I been even slightly prescient in 1972, I would have bought a few houses in Santa Cruz when a nice two-bedroom home a block from the beach could be had for seven thousand dollars. But I was not prescient and I didn’t buy, so today I do not sit on a mountain of gold.

“I had three chairs in my house: one for solitude, two for friendship, three for society.” Henry David Thoreau

Which brings me to how we got our four new chairs. Marcia and I went to Santa Rosa to spend three days before Christmas with Opal, Marcia’s mother, a sneaky good pool player who always says, “Pure luck” after sinking another in a series of formidable shots en route to victory.

For lunch one day the three of us went to the Nepalese Indian restaurant Yeti, and when we were seated in our elegant wood-framed, broad-bottomed, high-backed, royally reddish upholstered chairs at the handsome dark wood table, Marcia declared, “I love these chairs. They are so comfortable. I would love to have chairs like these.”

We inquired of our friendly Nepalese waiter if he knew where one might purchase these enviable chairs, and a moment later the owner of Yeti, a charming man named Narayan Somname, came to our table and said, “Yes, I have more of these chairs in my warehouse in Glen Ellen. How many would you like?”

“Well, er, four,” I said, looking at Marcia to see if she wanted to jump at the chance. “How much do…”

“I will sell them to you for ninety dollars each,” he said, nodding. “They require some assembling.”

We pondered the situation for the rest of our scrumptious meal and concluded we would buy four. We arranged to meet Narayan at the restaurant the next day to give him a check and get the chairs, which he would bring from Glen Ellen, and that is what we did. The chairs came two to a box marked Made In China, the two boxes just fitting in the trunk of our trusty old Camry.

As Narayan closed the trunk, he said, “You may have noticed in the restaurant we affixed braces to the legs because after a year, some of the chairs began to wobble. I will take ten dollars off the price of each chair so you can purchase the necessary hardware.”

We arrived home in Mendocino on Christmas Eve, and after we got the woodstove roaring and our frigid house was habitable once more, I unpacked the chairs and found in each box a piece of fabric wrapped around a couple dozen bolts of widely varying sizes, with no directions for assembling the chairs.

Four hours of cursing and futzing and puzzling and grunting later—did I mention cursing?—the four chairs were assembled and arrayed around our dining table where, for the last ten years, four small uncomfortable folding chairs had served us with the aid of additional cushions for butts and backs.

We sat in our new chairs, Marcia pronounced them marvelous, and I thought they were marvelous, too, but I also felt a little guilty about having such beautiful chairs to sit on.

The next day, writing to my friend Max, I said, “These new chairs make me feel very adult. I wondered if I ever would.”

Max wrote back, “I laughed aloud at this. Maybe all along you merely needed the exactly right chair in order to experience a change of consciousness? Or I should ask: what is it about these chairs, do you think, that causes you to feel very adult?”

I replied, “The previous chairs I bought were small and inexpensive and not particularly comfortable, and there was a Spartan precarious feeling to them. I still feel slightly immoral buying new clothing, though I do buy new shoes and I bought a new piano in 1980. I don’t know. Maybe in so completely rejecting materialism, I got stuck in the mindset of my penniless twenties, and spontaneously buying four groovy chairs feels antithetical to my lifetime practice of owning a few excellent things and making do with minimal everything else.”

How Much Do You Love Him?

Wednesday, March 5th, 2014

How Much Do You Love Him?

Django on Marcia’s Lap

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser March 2014)

“The story of cats is the story of meat, and begins with the end of the dinosaurs.” Elizabeth Marshall Thomas

Our cat Django is a very large and handsome gray cat, or as our veterinarian said politely, “Shall we call him obese?”

“But he hasn’t gained any weight for several years,” we hastened to explain. “He’s holding steady at twenty pounds and a little.”

The good doctor of cats and dogs was not greatly impressed by our feat of maintaining the status quo of Django’s enormity. We had rushed our twelve-year-old kitty to the one and only veterinarian office in the village of Mendocino because he was in severe distress, which turned out to be the result of urinary tract and kidney difficulties that could, sooner than later, lead to his death if we don’t start feeding him special expensive food or unless, as our vet explained, Django undergoes an operation to eliminate the problem entirely by turning him into a female in regard to how he urinates.

“How much do you love him?” said our vet, smiling sympathetically. “Such an operation costs around fifteen hundred dollars. The better diet and shedding some weight should do the trick for some years, though if he is blocked again, then short of surgery we would have to catheterize and hospitalize him for three days, after which he could have another episode, so cost can become an issue for some people.”

“That would be us,” I said, not entirely comfortable with equating the willingness to spend money and love, but I knew our vet was trying to be clear and up front about how much various procedures cost, and we appreciated his candor.

In any case, the vet bill certainly gave us pause, pun intended. For the emergency visit, urine analysis, blood analysis, antibiotic injection, painkiller injection, ten cans of special food, and kitty litter so we could keep the big fatso inside for a couple days while he recovered from his ordeal, our cost was three hundred and forty-two dollars. How much do we love our cat? That much. So far.

Then there is the problem of Django’s broken tooth. “Extractions of this nature,” said our vet, “can run from five hundred to a thousand dollars. If you don’t have the tooth removed, infection may ensue resulting in abscess, in which case dental work would be imperative or…” How much do we love this cat?

“A veterinarian and cat specialist, Dr. Richard Thoma, trying to locate a cat’s purr with a stethoscope, found that the sound was equally loud all over.” Elizabeth Marshall Thomas

When I was a landscaper forty years ago, I lived in a bunkhouse adjacent to my boss’s house on the outskirts of Medford Oregon. My boss and his wife grew up on farms in Kansas and considered cats semi-wild animals to be tolerated around their two-acre homestead because the cats kept the rodent population in check. Every year or two, when the resident cat population became overly robust, my boss would gather up all but the best hunters and the most elusive cats and drown them.

I thought about this matter-of-fact drowning of kittens and cats as Marcia handed her credit card to the vey nice receptionist at our excellent village veterinarian clinic, and I thought of a photo essay I saw recently of cat meat vendors in China selling both live and butchered cats to eager shoppers in an open air market. And though I have no desire to drown or eat Django, that’s where my thoughts wandered when I thought of three hundred and forty-two dollars suddenly disappearing from our bank account, with further Django-related expenses looming on the not-too-distant horizon.

“People who have both dogs and cats can verify the statement: when called, the common response of dogs is to come, and of cats is to answer.” Elizabeth Marshall Thomas

That afternoon in the post office, I fell into conversation with a friend who responded to my emotional account of the Django crisis by telling me the story of her parents’ beloved and also impressively heavyset cat Hercules, who suffered from the identical malady Django suffers from, with costs of dealing with such urinary kidney problems eventually outstripping her parents’ devotion to the cat.

“It was that really cold wet winter a few years ago, and their roof was leaking badly, towels and buckets catching drips everywhere, the roofers supposed to come that afternoon, and there they were standing in the examining room looking down at big old Hercules sitting on the table with the vet petting the sweet old thing and waiting for them to choose between a dry house and the cat.”

“Even being fed by a person must seem like old times to a cat, because of the person’s manner of delivering food. A person characteristically puts down a dish of food and moves away from it, offering plenty of space, which invites the cat to approach and eat. In the same way, a hunting mother cat puts down the dead bird she has brought, backing away from it to show that she will not compete for the carcass and that her kitten can approach.” Elizabeth Marshall Thomas

Save for a few brief stretches in my life—sixty-four years and counting—I’ve always had a cat or two and they’ve had me. Their personalities and propensities have been as varied as those of humans, and their intelligence quotas have been variable, too, ranging from clairvoyant geniuses to barely functional idiots. And until today, I never spent more than a few dollars on veterinary care for any of my cats, largely because I didn’t have the money and I wasn’t partnered with someone willing to spend hundreds of dollars to keep a cat alive. Most of my cats lived long and healthy lives, but one died young from feline leukemia, three were hit by cars, and one was snatched by a coyote. My sister’s beautiful young cat was plucked from her terrace by a hawk.

Thinking back and remembering Chubs and Girly Girl and Suzy Cat and Boy Boy and Bucky and Pele and Juju, I realize that part of their collective appeal was that they were largely independent from me and didn’t need much more than sufficient food and warmth and occasional shows of affection. They did not, in fact, cost hardly anything considering all the pleasure and help they gave me, and if they had cost very much, I would not have so blithely taken them on as one does with cats when one is in the habit of having them and being had by them.

“Long ago, around the southern shores of the Mediterranean, little African wildcats took shelter in people’s dwelling places, probably finding the supply of mice and rats and the escape from heavy rains much to their liking. There they stayed. Perhaps they even liked the warmth of people’s fires. The earliest cat known is from Jericho (now Israel) nine thousand years ago when one of the few amenities that people had that might attract a cat was fire.” Elizabeth Marshall Thomas

Our mighty federal government grants me six hundred and eighty-four dollars a month from Social Security, and we just gave exactly half that amount to our veterinarian to save Django’s life. Two weeks ago our healthcare insurance provider Anthem Blue Cross, seeing that I will turn sixty-five in seven months and Marcia will turn sixty-five in a year, decided to jack up our insurance rates nearly three hundred dollars a month to extract as much more money from us as they possibly can before we graduate to Medicare.

So to save a little money, we made the leap to Obamacare, and lo it came to pass that under the new healthcare system we will be covered by, wouldn’t you know it, Anthem Blue Cross and pay them a little more than the usurious sum we were paying them before they jacked up our rates to ever more dizzying heights, except under Obamacare our deductible is so high it would be laughable if it were not obscene.

Meanwhile, Django is lolling by the fire, fully recovered from his painful ordeal and blissfully unaware that if we hadn’t spent a big wad of cash, he would probably be looking for a dark place to curl up and die.

I rub his ample belly and say, “Hang in there, Django. Another seven months and I’ll be getting Medicare, otherwise known as Single Payer, which is what everyone in America would have if not for the crooks running our government. Then we’ll have a bit more money should you need some help and we decide we love you enough.”

Flow

Friday, August 26th, 2011

(This article first appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser August 2011)

“Flow with whatever may happen and let your mind be free. Stay centered by accepting what you are doing. This is the ultimate.” Zhuangzi

Something happened to me a few days ago the likes of which hadn’t happened to me in eons. I was shooting hoops at the elementary school, playing alone, as is my custom now that I am deep into middle age and easily injured, when I became aware that I was caught up in an extraordinary flow of action involving my body, the ball, the air, the backboard, and the hoop. I think this was what sports commentators mean when they say a player is “in the zone,” playing with seeming effortlessness, yet playing superbly and flawlessly for an extended period of time. A frequently used adjunct comment to saying a player is “in the zone” is “he’s unconscious.”

That adjunct comment turns out not to be true, because the cool thing about being in the zone, and this has been corroborated by many athletes speaking about their in-the-zone experiences, is that they were not unconscious, but rather fully aware of being in the zone yet not consciously controlling what they were doing. That is to say, they were not conscious of making decisions about what to do next while they were caught up in the flow of action because they were, in essence, inseparable from the flow of everything going on.

It is also true that the more practiced and skillful an athlete, the more easily and often she will find herself in the zone; zone being a misnomer since it is not really a place, but a state of being. My in-the-zone moment was probably the result of playing more often these past few months when school has been out and my access to the courts has been unlimited.

My experience of being inseparable from the ecstatic flow began with the awareness of the ball coming into my hands as if thrown to me by an invisible cohort, the ball leaving my hands as if self-propelled, the ball arching high into the air and tumbling down through the center of the hoop, the ball returning as if passed to me by that same invisible friend, my body dancing back from the hoop to a distance I usually, consciously, avoid, the ball leaving my hands again, arching high, smacking through the net, on and on, dozens of times without a miss from near and far, until I had the thought, “This is so fun!” and the ball caromed off the rim into the weeds.

“As far as I’m concerned, the essentials of jazz are: melodic improvisation, melodic invention, swing, and instrumental personality.” Mose Allison

Musicians, artists, dancers, inventors, thinkers…all creative people aspire to be in the zone.

“Memory is funny. Once you hit a vein the problem is not how to remember but how to control the flow.” Tobias Wolff

On the way home from my in-the-zone experience on the basketball court, I fell into a memory of my largest (in terms of numbers of dollars) experiment with money. I was a pauper by American standards from 1969 when I dropped out of college until 1980 when I made what was for me a small fortune through the sale of the paperback rights to my first published novel and the simultaneous sale of the movie rights to the same novel. Shortly thereafter, I paid a large amount of income tax, moved to Sacramento, and bought the only house I’ve ever owned. And then in 1984, just as my movie money was running out, I got married and resumed my practice of making just enough to get by.

Then in 1995, hot on the heels of my divorce and the concurrent disappearance of my house, I made the second small fortune of my life through the unlikely sale of a one-year option on the movie rights to my obscure novel Forgotten Impulses, published in 1980, for one hundred thousand dollars, and the even more unlikely sale of my novel Ruby & Spear to Bantam for twenty-five thousand dollars. In the case of Forgotten Impulses, no movie was ever made, and in the case of Ruby & Spear, Bantam took the wonderful book out of print the day it was published (though copies of both novels can still be found on the interweb for pennies, and you may listen to me read Ruby & Spear (and play all the different characters) at Audible or iTunes). But in any case, I suddenly had, by my standards, another large pile of money.

And I decided to give this second fortune to favorite friends who had very little money and would greatly appreciate some cash. Having spent much of my first fortune on myself, a strategy that brought me little joy and much sorrow, I was curious to see what would happen if I shared my wealth. My hope was that in giving away my fortune I would be priming the cosmic pump, so to speak, which priming would eventually bring me even more money.

As it happens, giving away a fortune in America is not as simple as simply giving money away. First of all, one must pay a large portion of the fortune to the federal and state governments, and this portion is especially large if one is not in the habit of making big sums of money and does not have shelters and deductions and depreciations and such to mitigate the taxes owed. Not wanting to go into debt, I called my accountant and, despite his good-natured assertion that I was insane, we figured out I could give away seventy-six thousand dollars and still have enough left over to pay the taxes I owed, make an impressive contribution to Social Security, and have a few thousand dollars left for rent and food and a new basketball. So I made a list of people I wanted to give money to, most of them artists and poets and musicians working at low-paying jobs while painting and writing and making music and hoping for big breaks such as the two big breaks I’d gotten, and I gave them each two thousand dollars.

Some weeks after mailing out those thirty-eight checks, I got a postcard from Paris from one of the recipients informing me that on the day she got my check she bought a round trip ticket to Europe, packed her bags, and, as she wrote, “I knew it was now or never, so I went for it. Merci!” Another recipient sent me a list of how she spent her two thousand: one thousand donated to a non-profit organization dedicated to spaying feral cats, three hundred for art supplies, six hundred and fifty rent, and fifty bucks on expensive coffee beans. Several recipients said they felt weird taking money from me and wanted to give the money back. When I insisted they keep the cash, they all seemed mightily relieved. And most fascinating to me were the four recipients who never said a word to me about receiving the money, though cancelled checks confirmed they had, indeed, gotten the loot.

Did my giving away my small fortune prime the cosmic pump as I hoped it would? I assume so, though my income for the next several years remained barely adequate to cover rent and vittles, and the Internal Revenue Service did audit me for that year because of what my auditor called “an unlikely income spike.” But money, after all, is not the only measure of how Universe indicates her support for what we do and how we do what we do.

“My hand does the work and I don’t have to think; in fact, were I to think, it would stop the flow.” Edna O’Brien

So today I’m sitting on a bench on the terrace at the Presbyterian, summer fog cloaking the village, and I overhear the following snippets of conversation going on two benches away where six people, four men and two women, are passing pot pipes around and shooting the breeze.

Woman #1: Dude. You were married? For real?

Man #1: So, yeah, I was like totally married. Only she was like thirty and I’m like six years younger, so she just didn’t get me, you know? Like we were from totally different generations.

Woman #1: So are you like…divorced?

Man #1: Totally.

Man #2: Hey, where have you been? Nice shoes.

Woman #2: I was, you know, in LA and like…now I’m out on fifty thousand dollars bail.

Man #2: Dude. Fifty thousand. What did you do?

Woman #2: Lots.

Man #1: Pot?

Woman #2: No. I said lots. Credit cards and shit.

Man #1: Whoa, Dude. I thought you said pot.

Woman #2: No and one of the big credit card things was totally not mine, so…

Man #1: You want to smoke some hash on top of that?

Woman #2: Sure. Why not?

Woman #1: Totally, dude. Go with the flow.

Todd’s web site is UnderTheTableBooks. com

Rich People

Thursday, August 18th, 2011

Photo by Marcia Sloane

(This article first appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser August 2011)

“ Of all classes the rich are the most noticed and the least studied.” John Kenneth Galbraith

I know people who own nice houses and multiple cars and have sufficient wealth to eat and drink whatever they want to eat and drink, and to take occasional vacations, too, yet they do not consider themselves rich. That is, they do not think of themselves as people who should pay higher taxes because, well, they feel they pay high enough taxes as it is, too high, actually, and besides, they aren’t part of that one per cent we hear so much about, those multi-millionaires and billionaires who pay no taxes at all. These people I know don’t own three and four homes, for goodness sake. Some of them own two houses, and maybe a rental or two, but no one ever gave them a golden parachute. They voted for Clinton and Obama. They proudly click buttons on web sites to indicate their opposition to icky pipelines and their sympathy for homeless people and their support for endangered species. So…now their houses are plummeting in value, their stock portfolios are crashing, and the price of everything edible and the price of anything that produces heat and electricity and horse power is skyrocketing, so it’s not as if these people have much to spare. In fact, when you add everything up, these people I know with houses and money are, relatively speaking, poor, though the words poor and rich are not precise terms; so let’s just say that these people I know with houses and cars and money are adamant that they are not rich.

“A rich man is nothing but a poor man with money.” W.C. Fields

I was six-years-old when my family moved from a tiny house in a working class neighborhood in San Mateo to a three-bedroom house in Atherton. For those of you unfamiliar with Atherton, it is a town of eight thousand residents and their servants not far from Stanford University, twenty-seven miles south of San Francisco on the northern edge of what is now called Silicon Valley, formerly Santa Clara Valley. The town of Atherton, though there is no commercial sector to speak of so it isn’t really a town but more of an enclave, is where the fabulously wealthy robber barons (Stanford, Spreckels, Crocker, Hopkins, etc.) built huge estates in the late 1800’s to escape the madding crowds and cold foggy summers of San Francisco, the climate of Atherton kin to Camelot. Indeed, those untaxed zillionaires built a private railroad to carry them in gilt coaches from their San Francisco mansions to their Atherton mansions, which railroad became the commuter line that today runs from San Francisco to San Jose.

The vast estates of these robber barons were eventually divided into twenty-acre estates for the next generation of wealthy crooks and entrepreneurs, and when my folks bought their flimsy two-year-old house in 1956 for thirty thousand dollars, most of those twenty-acre estates had been subdivided into one-acre parcels. Today, Atherton is home to some of the wealthiest people in the world. That is to say, some of the wealthiest people in the world today have at least one of their houses in Atherton. But when I was a lad, the homeowners in our neighborhood were teachers, doctors, dentists, car salesmen, airline pilots, merchants, stockbrokers, graphic designers, advertising executives, and businessmen; and their wives. Most of these homeowners were children of the Great Depression, came from working class backgrounds, and had surpassed their parents on their way up the economic ladder to snag three-bedroom houses in Atherton.

My parents were forever out-of-step with the Atherton ethos, which is to say my father thought of our acre as a little farm, and so he planted a fruit orchard in the field in front of our house, planted a grove of twelve redwoods, let the wild oaks grow large, and cultivated a big vegetable garden on the edge of a small grove of ancient olive trees (planted hundreds of years ago) behind our flat-roofed one-story sort of modern-looking house. Everyone else in our neighborhood had manicured gardens patrolled by vigilant Japanese gardeners. I am proud to say that in my parents’ fifty-year tenure in Atherton, at least two ordinances were passed specifically to curtail the Beverly Hillbilly tendencies of my derelict father. The first ordinance forbade field grass to be above six inches high, and the second ordinance forbade the hanging of unsightly objects in trees—my father forever dangling strips of aluminum foil in his fruit trees to scare away voracious birds.

Which is all to say I grew up in the midst of rich people, went to school with a mix of rich kids and working class kids, had a few extremely wealthy friends, and was, in fact, rich, though I didn’t know I was rich because my mother insisted we were poor and if I wanted money I would have to work for it, which I began to do in earnest at the age of eleven, gardening for neighbors and babysitting their children, many of whom were not much younger than I.

“Do not waste your time on Social Questions. What is the matter with the poor is Poverty; what is the matter with the rich is Uselessness.” George Bernard Shaw

Shortly after the passage of Jarvis Gann in 1978, the infamous Proposition 13 that put a ceiling of one per cent on property taxes in California, and with the ensuing ascendancy of Ronald Reagan and his everything-for-the-rich-nothing-for-anybody-else policies, housing prices in Atherton went from high to incredibly high. And though my parents’ falling apart old house was by then essentially worthless, the acre it sat upon was worth a million dollars in 1980, two million dollars in 1990, and three million dollars in 1995. When I came home to visit over the course of those fifteen years, I found Atherton undergoing a shocking transformation that reached a crescendo of obscenity at the height of the dot com insanity circa 1997.

In the Atherton real estate parlance of the 1990’s, houses built in the 1950’s and 60’s were called scrapers, not tear-downs, but scrapers, because when such a house sold to a wealthy buyer, the entire lot—house, driveway, trees, everything—was scraped down to bare earth to make way for a massive new house that would cover most of that acre of ground and sell for between seven and fifteen million dollars. These new houses, by the way, were not passive solar, active solar, or even attractive. They were huge blocky hideous monstrosities, ecological disasters housing extremely rich people.

“Experience demands that man is the only animal which devours his own kind, for I can apply no milder term to the general prey of the rich on the poor.” Thomas Jefferson

True story. Just up the hill from my parents’ house, a shady lane departed from the main road and wended its way around a dozen large homes built in the 1950’s and 60’s, each house sitting on a two-acre lot. I used to go up that lane when I was a boy, braving the growling dogs, because at lane’s end there was a fabulous gorge filled with live oaks and a seasonal creek—a wild refuge inhabited by deer and bobcats and quail and nature spirits. I played there for many a summer, sometimes with friends but more often alone, imagining I was an Indian, and I don’t mean someone from India.

Forty-some years later in the 1990’s, a young man devised a kind of software I shall not name, software used for accounting, and he became a multi-billionaire. With a small portion of his fortune, he bought all twelve of the large houses on that shady lane, and he bought the wild gorge, too, along with several other adjacent properties. He paid five and six and seven million dollars for each of the shady lane houses, and twelve million for the house of an old woman who was not going to sell to him at any price, at first. Then the young man did an odd thing. He invited several of his friends to party with him in those many houses he’d bought, and in each house he and his friends put golf balls on the floors, and using the best golf clubs money can buy, the young man and his friends hit those golf balls through the windows of the houses. Fun? I don’t know.

Having shattered the windows of these many houses (some of which were designed by famous architects and featured in Sunset Magazine and Architectural Digest) this young man and his friends drove gigantic bulldozers into and through and over these houses, for the fun of it, I suppose, before they turned the work over to professionals who really knew how to scrape everything away down to the ground.

Then the young man ordered thousands and thousands of gigantic truckloads of dirt to be brought from faraway to fill the wild gorge so the land would be level for his very own nine-hole golf course, no skimping on distances, designed by a famous golf course designer. Then the young man had a house built at the high point of his property, a house that took dozens of carpenters and masons three years to build, an enormous four-story mansion resembling the castle in the Disney logo; and the young man also had a huge indoor athletic facility built a stone’s throw from his castle, a facility housing a big swimming pool and a tennis court and a racquetball court and a full-sized basketball court. And then, along with two posh guesthouses, one Japanese modern, one Swiss Chalet, he had a beautiful fountain installed at the bottom of the gently sloping hill behind his castle.

Only this is no ordinary beautiful fountain. No, this young man’s fountain, which resides in the center of an enormous plaza accessed by an immense staircase descending from the vast terrazzo behind the young man’s castle, is an exact replica of the largest fountain at Versailles. The young man had the massive fountain and the enormous plaza and the immense staircase built by a small army of skilled craftsmen flown from Italy to California to make these colossal replicas out of exquisite white marble quarried in Carrara.

Todd’s web site is UnderTheTableBooks. com

Poor People

Thursday, September 9th, 2010

“How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.” Anne Frank

On my way out to water the garden, the living room radio tuned to our local public radio station, I hope I didn’t hear what I think I just heard, especially since I recently renewed our membership to that radio station. But when I come in from the garden, Marcia confirms that some nincompoop guest on said station did, indeed, say, “You shouldn’t give money to the homeless people in Fort Bragg because they’ll just use it to buy drugs.”

If I had a hundred dollars for every person I’ve heard say that about homeless people, I’d be rich. And if I had a hundred dollars for every person I’ve convinced to think otherwise, I could buy each and every homeless person in Fort Bragg a delicious organic apple. I choose to call the guest of that listener-sponsored radio show a nincompoop because the word describes him precisely. A nincompoop is a simpleton, a shallow thinker, someone who speaks without knowledge. And this nincompoop’s statement is not only false, but also cruel, and his cruel lie makes me so angry I absolutely must refute him.

Henceforth I will address you directly, my dear nincompoop. Here are some ironclad facts for you to consider.

1. Many poor and homeless people are not drug addicts.

2. Many people with homes are drug addicts.

3. The only difference between homeless people and people with homes is that homeless people do not have homes, and people with homes have homes.

4. The only difference between poor people and rich people is that rich people have lots of money and poor people have very little money.

Here are some questions for you, my dear misinformed nincompoop. I will supply the answers since you are not here. And though I don’t know you, I am certain these are the correct answers.

1. Have you ever been homeless? No.

2. Do you know any homeless people? I don’t mean, do you know of any homeless people, I mean do you actually know any homeless people well enough to sit around with them and shoot the breeze or take drugs with them or eat food with them? As their pal? No.

3. Where do you get off saying homeless people only buy drugs with the money we give them? You get off saying that because some radio talk show host needs his head examined for inviting you on his show.

4. Have you ever been extremely hungry, as in starving, and not had any money to buy food? No.

5. Have you ever purchased wine or marijuana or prescription drugs? Yes, you have. Thousands and thousands of dollars worth.

6. Do you think buying wine and pot and prescription drugs is qualitatively different than buying illegal drugs? Yes, you do, but you’re wrong.

7. Have you ever heard of Angela Davis? Yes, the political activist scholar with the famous Afro. She has written convincingly, with pages and pages of unassailable data to back up her claims, that poor and homeless people buy illegal drugs because they don’t have health insurance or enough money to afford prescription anti-depressants, painkillers, mood elevators, and all the other legal drugs bought by people with health insurance and enough money to buy such drugs. Poor and homeless people buy speed and dope and uppers and downers and fortified wine to self-medicate just as you and I and hundreds of millions of people with homes and money do.

“Nobody made a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could only do a little.” Edmund Burke

When I lived in Berkeley not very long ago, once a week I would take BART to San Francisco where hundreds of poor and homeless people gather at the mouths of the underground to solicit donations. I would emerge into the sunlight and see these multitudes of poor and homeless people, and I wanted to give each and every one of them money because they all quite obviously needed money. But paying my rent and buying food left me very little money to spare. I couldn’t afford health insurance, I didn’t own a car, my clothes were hand-me-downs from friends, and I went out for a meal about never. Indeed, the primary thing distinguishing me from those poor and homeless people begging at the corner of Powell and Market was that I had a bit more money than they and a few more options for earning what I earned.

Just how does one decide which poor person to endow with a buck or two out of the hundreds and thousands and millions of poor people who need money? And by the way, dear nincompoop, even poor homeless drug addicts spend some of the money you don’t give them on food, so they will have the strength to take those horrible drugs that you take, too, only you don’t call them drugs because you are misguided.

Having been homeless for some years in my twenties, and having lived for many years on the verge of being homeless again, and having depended on the kindness of friends to get me through my most difficult times, I knew that anything I gave to these mendicants would be greatly appreciated. Even a dime or a nickel. I did not know if the money I gave would be used for drugs or food or shelter; but I did know that how the money was spent was none of my business. My business was to be compassionate, and so when I felt I could spare a few dollars, I gave them to whoever got to me first.

After a few months of running the gauntlet of these poor and homeless people who had been so abused and abandoned by our fascistic corporate oligarchy trickle down cruel and unusually punishing society, I hit upon the idea of taking a big fistful of change with me whenever I went to the city, and dispensing coins until they were gone. In this way I fulfilled my role as an executor of the final drips of trickle down economics.

One day, having dispensed a few dollars in quarters and dimes, and as my thoughts turned to earning enough money to pay my usurious rent, I was hailed by a young man I had given baksheesh to on a previous trip to the city. He smiled at me and was about to speak, when I interrupted with, “I don’t have any money for you today.”

“Wasn’t asking for money,” he said, shaking his head. “Just saying hello. You helped me out two three times before. Just saying hello.”

“Well,” I said, flushed with shame as I fumbled for my wallet, “I think I might have a dollar or…”

“You don’t have to give me money, man. I was just saying hello because, like…I know you.”

So I didn’t take out my wallet. But I did meet his gaze. And we looked at each other for a short infinity, and I saw that he was I.

And that is the heart of what I want to say to you, dear nincompoop. I am you, and you are me, and we are all together. And your nimcompooposity is mine, and mine is yours. And those poor homeless people, the ones you are so certain will spend the money you don’t give them on drugs, they are you, too. And by not giving to them, you are not giving to yourself. That may be a difficult concept to grasp, but it is absolutely how the universe operates.

The Golden Rule didn’t get to be the Golden Rule by accident. “Do unto other as you would have them do unto you” underpins every religious philosophy that ever lasted more than a week. The Golden Rule might also be called karma. Our actions create our reality. Yes. You are the owner of your own karma. Your actions create your happiness and unhappiness. And another helpful Buddhist idea is that duality and separateness are bogus illusions (as opposed to useful illusions) and as long as we see those poor and homeless people as separate from us, we will remain separated from ourselves.

“Act as if what you do makes a difference.  It does.”  William James

Here is what I propose you do, my friend, my mirror. Go to the bank and take out a thousand dollars in twenty-dollar bills, and do not rest until you have given those twenties to fifty people you think are homeless. And as you give that money to those people, ask them to tell you a little about themselves. I promise you will discover that they are you and you are they, and we are all together.

Now go home and take a luxurious bath and simmer in your own newly spiced juices. Get the living room nice and toasty. Pour yourself a glass of wine or some other refreshing beverage, and make yourself comfortable, because what happens next will blow your mind into brilliance.

(This essay was written for the Anderson Valley Advertiser September 2010)

Of Trees and Money

Thursday, October 8th, 2009

This is about firewood, water, the San Francisco Giants, and Single Payer Healthcare, among other things.

Marcia and I rent a house on Comptche Road, our backyard abutting a vast redwood preserve last logged some eighty years ago. In the wake of that clear-cut came madrone, manzanita, pine, fir, tan oak, spruce, and redwoods. Now, left alone for the span of three human generations, the redwoods have re-established their supremacy on the north-facing slope and the “transitional forest” is swiftly dying in the persistent shade of the towering monarchs.

Thus our backyard is both fabulous forest and graveyard to thousands of dead and dying trees—fallen, falling, or easy to fell. It has become my practice to harvest a tiny portion of this perfectly seasoned wood with a buck saw and ax to help keep us warm through the winter, give my body a good workout, and to absent myself now and then from the human realm.

I walk down into the forest this morning en route to a copse of several dozen dead fir trees, their trunks eight inches in diameter, each tree about sixty-feet tall, the whole bunch of them sun-starved by an uphill gang of surging redwoods springing from the trunks of giants cut down a moment ago in redwood time. I’m thinking about the San Francisco Giants, another exciting and frustrating baseball season about to end, our valiant squad ultimately no match for the big money teams, and I have a vivid memory of Jack Sanford, a heavyset right-hander who threw for the Giants from 1959 to 1965. My memory is of a picture of Sanford in the off-season staying in shape by sawing up logs and chopping wood. The picture, which must have appeared in the Chronicle, shows Jack working next to his small house. Big-time professional baseball player. Small house. Chopping wood.

As my buck saw cuts into the standing firewood, I realize that when I was a kid idolizing my Giants, it never once occurred to me how much money any of the players made, and most of them didn’t make much to speak of. Doctors and lawyers and plumbers made more than most ball players in those days. Contracts were for a couple years, and if a player ceased to be productive, the team was not encumbered by a long-term contract that kept them from letting the player go and buying or trading for somebody younger and on the upswing.

I further realize that much of my latter day frustration about our team is related to the mess that money has made of sports, all sports, and of our society in general. We’ve got Aaron Rowand, a chunky over-the-hill center fielder making six million a year and we are bound to keep him for three more years because nobody else wants him and our dimwitted general manager signed him to an absurdly long contract. We gave Barry Zito a zillion dollars for what turns out to be almost nothing, and we couldn’t trade him today for a cup of coffee. But we’re stuck with these guys for years to come. Meanwhile, our young stars can now ask for what we gave Barry Zito, because they are unquestionably better than he. And if we don’t give them what they want, the Yankees or the Dodgers or the Angels or the Red Sox will.

The fir falls cleanly down the slope, and it occurs to me that the drought may have something to do with the sudden swiftness of all these trees dying, in combination with the deepening shade beneath the redwood canopy, the same drought that has hastened the disappearance of the salmon as the dunderheaded powers-that-be divert the dwindling Delta flow to the millions of people who shouldn’t be living in southern California because the place was never meant by Nature to sustain more than a few hundred thousand people, if that.

When my folks were born in Los Angeles in 1922, the entire population of southern California—that’s everything south of San Luis Obispo, including LA and San Diego—was less than a hundred and fifty thousand people. When they were cutting down the redwoods in my backyard here in Mendocino eighty years ago there were less than a million people in the entire state of California. Today there are forty million if you count the ones they don’t count.

I cut the dead fir in half and drag one thirty-foot length at a time up the steep slope to my woodshed. I’m fairly winded by the time I get the second piece home, so I take a break and water my vegetable garden. We water our garden with gray water caught in a hundred and fifty gallon tub I sunk in a hole not far from the tallest redwood tree on our property. Without the gray water, we couldn’t have a garden since the spring that supplies our water is perilously low this time of year and serves to quench the needs of two other homes on the property.

So we catch our shower water, bath water, washing machine water, and sink water. Only the kitchen sink and the toilets flow into the septic field; the rest we recycle. And I have to tell you, now that we’ve been growing a big garden with gray water for the last two years, I don’t understand why everybody in this drought-stricken state isn’t compelled by a reasonable law to install such a system.

Reasonable law. Hmm. Something about those two words together sounds funny. Someone, probably Michael Parenti, once said that nearly all the laws in America, federal, state, and local, are essentially about protecting those with property from those without property. What that has to do with recycling water, I’m not sure, but I am sure that for many people the idea of being compelled to reuse bath water to water their gardens would seem like the onset of socialism, so forget about it. Let the salmon die. And let the whales that eat the salmon die. Let everything die, but don’t tell me I can’t take long showers with the last fresh water from the high Sierras. It’s a free country, right? Anybody should be allowed to do anything they have the money for even if it means ruining the environment. So what if some out-of-state corporation wants to buy the local election and evade local oversight to build a monster mall that will be the ruination of Ukiah? Let the free market decide everything, unless the free market turns out to be a massive Ponzi scheme, in which case, please, have the government bail us out. But don’t call the bail out socialism, because, well, socialism is bad.

So I’m sawing up the length of fir. Based on the ease of cutting, I guess the wood has been standing dead for three years. Perfect. I buy a cord of wood every year from Frank’s Firewood in Anderson Valley to augment what I drag out of the forest. We heat the house with two woodstoves, wood heat being one of the rare luxuries of living so far from urban areas where too much wood smoke combines with too much automobile and factory effluent to make the air unhealthy to breathe. Or so they say.

As I’m sawing the wood, my thoughts return to money and how out of whack our culture has become since I was a kid, and how this out-of-whackness and money seem inextricably bound. By American standards, Marcia and I live simply, our three largest expenditures being our rent, health insurance, and food. I didn’t have health insurance until a few years ago when I suffered through a medical emergency and felt threatened with the loss of everything I owned or might ever own.

I remember when I was living in a commune in Santa Cruz in the early seventies and I had an abscessed tooth, though I didn’t know that’s what I had. I only knew my head hurt and I was blind with pain. So my fellow communards drove me to see Doc Willis. He was an old man, a real doctor, and he charged ten bucks a visit. I waited a half-hour to see him. He came into the examining room, winced in sympathy, touched my upper lip, and said, “You need a dentist. Call this guy.”

When I tried to give his nurse/secretary ten dollars, she waved me away. “He said no charge.”

So today the San Francisco 49ers are without the services of their first round draft pick because this misguided young kid Michael Crabtree won’t sign with them because he’s been told he should get ten million dollars a year instead of eight, though he has yet to prove he can do anything as a pro except complain. Today, actors without talent made famous through media saturation get twenty million dollars to be in truly awful movies. Today corporate executives get hundreds of millions of dollars a year for successfully stealing money from a gullible supine population. And today we have a medical system that is the number one cause of homelessness.

If you go see a doctor today, about anything, your usurious medical insurance premium will almost certainly go up. So maybe you don’t go to your doctor, though you really think you should, because you really can’t afford to go to the doctor, either because you don’t have medical insurance or because you do.

The nights have turned chill this early October. I’m about turn sixty. If I had eight million dollars, no, if I had eight hundred thousand dollars, I would never have to work again, and that would be after I gave you half the money. And if we didn’t spend a third of our income on health insurance we’re afraid to use, who knows what we and everybody else might do with our lives?

In the meantime, I’m cutting wood, recycling water, hoping the Giants can re-sign Lincecum and Uribe, hoping we dump Molina and Rowand and Winn, and wishing Sabean would have an epiphany and move to Tibet. I continue to write to Obama and our corporate congress folk urging them to push for Single Payer. I continue to tell my Mendocino friends to vote No on Measure A. And I continue to believe the wisest course to follow is to spend at least as much time being a good friend as I spend trying to make money.

(This article first appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser in October 2009)