Happy Earth Day!! A planet so great, they named it after a bunch of dirt.
Happy Earth Day!! A planet so great, they named it after a bunch of dirt.
Whenever I think of Lake Merritt I think of this guy I used to know back in the ’90s who’s body was dredged up from the Lake.
They used to call him “the Ray Charles guy” because of his uncanny resemblance to Ray Charles, with his black shades and jutting jaw. Or “the Sorry guy” because of his endlessly-repeated catch-phrase, “Sorry, don’t forget, sorry” (which was his sardonic response to his panhandling experiences where people told him “Sorry” a 100 times a day).
The Sorry guy basically thought human life was shit. And that everybody who was in it, including him, was shit. He usually didn’t get angry or worked up about this. He thought life was such shit, it wasn’t even worth getting excited over. He mostly sat alone on a park bench all day, sort of silently smoldering with disgust. He was a total loner. I don’t think I ever saw him hanging out with another person. I suspect he found the whole concept of “friendship” to be absurd, if not repulsive.
I remember this typical Sorry scene. One afternoon this charity group was giving out free bag lunches to the homeless. Sorry expressed his contempt for their offering by making a big show of opening up his sandwich and tossing it on the ground. Then he dumped his bag of potato chips on the ground, took a bite out of his apple and tossed that on the ground, wadded up his paperbag and tossed that on the ground. Sat there on the bench, smirking, surrounded by garbage. Some people are beyond helping.
Sorry was one of those guys on the street scene who you actually see disintegrating right before your eyes. Sorry liked to smoke crack. And he’d regularly have these drug-induced strokes. You wouldn’t see Sorry for a couple of weeks. And then he’d show up and it would be like: “Well, it looks like Sorry got a couple of more limbs paralyzed.”
The word on the streets was that he had burned somebody on a drug deal, and that’s how he ended up in the drink. Which seemed plausible.
When I think of Sorry I’m struck by the wide range of human experiences. Everyone comes up with their own unique take on what this life is all about. Which is our right as human beings. . . . Like so many street people, when he disappeared he was almost instantly forgotten. But for some weird reason I keep remembering them.
Whenever I go by the Oakland Tribune building I get an acid flashback to 1980. At the time I had spent the previous couple of years homeless and living on the streets of San Francisco, or working as a bike messenger and renting out flophouse hotelrooms in the Tenderloin. But, after getting one too many knives pressed up against my neck, I decide to see if I could clean up my act and see if I could make a life for myself. Seemed worth a try.
So I took several showers, bought a set of clean clothes, and applied for a job a the Oakland Tribune. I had always been interested in a career in journalism. Mostly from reading “Jimmy Olsen – Cub Reporter” comicbooks as a kid. It seemed like an exciting field, chasing after crime scenes and making witty repartee with Lois Lane and Perry White, the editor (“Don’t call me Chief!”). Plus, Jimmy Olsen was “Superman’s best pal.” Which seemed like a great fringe benefit of the reporter’s life. (Like most of my life’s ambitions, they were directly culled from the comicbooks of my youth.)
My plan was to start at the bottom, like Jimmy Olsen, and work my way up to the top. My plan worked beautifully. Well, half of it. I got a minimum wage job in the phone sales department selling subscriptions. And I stayed there for 5 months until I finally quit in disgust.
They had one good sales pitch: “Buy one month and get the second month ABSOLUTELY free!” For some reason, it was the added “absolutely that made the sales pitch work. But even then, you’d have to dial 200 numbers and get 200 rejections before you got even one nibble. In fact, the job was mind-numbingly boring.
My problem as a salesman was: The boss always stressed: “The first two ‘no’s” count as ‘maybes.'” But I always stupidly assumed that no meant no. And never pushed the issue. So I was a complete loser.
The whole set-up reminded me of high school. We all sat at these desks under fluorescent lights, writing down boring information on our note-pads, while the teacher/supervisor glared at us from the desk up front. I realized: This is what they had been preparing me for all those years in school.
The top phonesales person on our floor was this huge, middle-aged woman, about 6-foot-2 with a huge beehive hairdo that seemed to add another 6 inches, and glasses right out of the “Far Side.” But she had the cutest, sexiest, giggling, purring voice you ever heard. Guys would order 3 or 4 different subscriptions and try to ask her out on dates. She was smooth. She could make a phone sales pitch for a newspaper subscription sound better than phone sex.
The only real excitement was when an earthquake hit one day. The phoneroom was on the 9th floor of the Oakland Tribune building, and you could actually feel that old building swaying back and forth. Back and forth. A very queasy feeling. For a second I thought the building might actually snap in half and we’d all plummet to our deaths, and subscriptions to the Oakland Tribune would come to a grinding halt. But no such luck.
My only career “advancement” was when somebody saw some of the cartoons I used to feverishly doodle on my note-pad while I was making calls. And hired me to draw a caricature of Billy Martin, the baseball manager, for an in-house promotion about the Oakland A’s. But if that rag had had any balls they would have immediately hired me to write a 5-days-a-week column on any subjects I desired. Within two weeks I guarantee you, they would have had a thousand outraged letters-to-the-editor demanding I be fired, as well as half of their advertisers dropping out of the paper in protest. (Them newspaper guys are always saying: “There’s no such thing as bad publicity.” But you’d be surprised how FEW of these gutless editors have the balls to actually test that premise!)
Anyways, after about 5 months I couldn’t stand that job anymore, and the idea of having knives pressed up against my neck really didn’t seem all that bad. So I quit my job and reverted back to my Skid Row lifestyle.
This is something feral cats do at least 100 times an hour. Suddenly swiveling their heads in the direction of a potential threat and intensely staring off into the distance. “WHAT WAS THAT SOUND??!!!” . . . .
“Oh. It was a leaf falling to the ground.”
Then it’s back to drinking the milk. At least until the next sound.
In that position, with their back legs primed for take-off, you can blink your eye and suddenly the cat is 100 yards up the hill. I’m told they can go from 0 to 30-miles-per-hour in a split second. Usain Bolt, the fastest human alive, can run 27 miles-per-hour. The average house cat can do 30. And I can assure you, the average feral cat is even faster. Probably because they’re often running for their lives.
I moved into this hotel on University Avenue back in 1982. I was 26 and most of the people who lived there at the time were elderly. These old men and old women often hung out during the day on this bench in the lobby. When I’d pass them and overhear them talking, it seemed like their primary subject of conversation was their health, their many body ailments. “Ahh, my arthritis has been acting up lately.” . . . “You think THAT’S bad, let me tell you about my kidneys!” . . . “I’m seeing the doctor about my hip replacement on Tuesday.” . . . Etc.
I’ve been thinking about them lately, now that my eye surgery has become my primary conversational gambit the last 3 months.
Over the years, all the little old people in the lobby would disappear one by one. By the time I moved out in 1995 they were pretty much all gone and I was now one of the older people in the building. I guess that’s just how it works. I missed seeing them there on the bench. Old people can be pretty cute. In a way, they turn into cartoon characters as they age, in the way that they grow into exaggerated caricatures of themselves. Plus, there’s something basically harmless about old people, and that’s kind of endearing.
I remember this one little old lady who’s face was set in a permanent sneer, this sort of sour look of disapproval like she was sucking on lemons all day long. Then there was this other old guy who always looked just-happy-to-be-there. Like he was savoring every moment he had left, like it was all gravy. The oldsters seemed to go in one direction or the other. Bitterness-at-how-it-all-turned-out. Or WHOOPIE-I-could-give-a-flying-fuck-I’m-gonna-be-dead-soon-so-who-cares!
I’ll always remember this one goofy sight. There was this one respectable-looking little old guy in his 80s who used to hang out on the bench all the time. He was sort of a pear-shaped little duffer with this little pot-belly, sort of a Mr. Peabody type. Anyways, this one day he was sitting there on the bench wearing, of all things, this black, sleeve-less, David Bowe t-shirt. This glam-rock photo of David Bowie’s face on the front of the shirt. It was one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen. It was so incongruious. I highly doubt he even knew who David Bowie was. It was probably the last clean shirt in his closet, and who knows how he got it. But why NOT wear it? I hope when I’m 80 I don’t give a fuck either.
It’s about a 2 mile walk from downtown Berkeley to my campsite up in the hills. All uphill. Until I finally get to this manhole cover. Which is the exact point where the landscape finally levels out. So it’s always a joyous moment when I reach the manhole cover. That feeling of: “I’ve MADE it!!” Top of the mountain! I’ve walked that route thousands of times over the years. But I never tire of that moment. I’ll usually jump on top of the manhole cover. Do a little jig. Shout out my mantra. “Om namah Shivaya!!”
If it’s late at night and I’m drunk I’ll probably have a manic grin on my face. Giggling to myself at the whole improbable goof of being alive in this world. From this vantage point high about Berkeley you get a full view of the sky above. And a panoramic view of the Bay below, and the glittering skyline of San Francisco off in the distance. The Golden City. And I’ll feel like I’m on top of the world. Literally.
This life can be so difficult. I guess that’s why I make a point of trying to savor life’s little triumphs.
There are a lot of theories regarding the origin of April Fool’s Day. This somewhat ridiculous non-holiday. This is one of the more plausible theories.
In ancient cultures, the calendars generally started New Years around April 1rst. That made sense because that’s right around the vernal equinox and the beginning of Spring. Makes more sense than starting the New Year on January 1rst. Which really makes no sense when you think about.
But it turned out, April 1rst was also when the Church was celebrating their big Easter holiday. And it pissed the Church off that everyone was getting drunk and rabble-rousing and puking in the streets and watching Dick Clark, when they should have been piously celebrating the birth of Christ and all that. Who died for our sins, after all. And who’s followers were known to spoil a good party.
So the Pope put the screws on the local politicians (who were all bought-and-sold by all the lobbyists and special interest groups, as usual). Finally, some shmuck named King Charles IX, the king of France (whoopty-do), bowed to the papal pressure. And in 1564 he decreed that the calendar would be reformed. Reformed, I tell you. Henceforth, from now on, New Years would start on January 1rst. And anybody who didn’t get with the program was likely to find themselves chained in the basement of the Pope’s palace.
Of course people were still in the habit of partying on April 1rst. Humans are a creature of habit, if anything. So the holiday lingered on for awhile in the public imagination. People would still party on April 1rst. Until eventually, people forgot why they were celebrating in the first place. So April 1rst became sort of a joke holiday. A fool’s holiday.
Sounds plausible. Or maybe I just made this all up. APRIL FOOLS!!
I’m gonna’ be gone for a month (doing my eye surgery thing). So I’ve been stuffing my feral cats with food in the meantime. To prepare them for the lean times. The problem is, Blondie’s been in heat lately. So she’s been somewhat indifferent to food. She just sorts of picks at it, and then goes off tom-hunting like a hussy. You know how it is when you got sex on the brain. You don’t think of much of anything else except for sex. But I keep trying to tell her: “Listen. Eat up now. There might not be any food for the next month.” But unfortunately, she doesn’t understand English. The dumb beast.
But at least for the moment she’s feeling no pain. Today she was romping around with this gray tabby that’s been romancing her lately. She was so happy that she spent about 15 minutes just rolling around on her back in a state of pure joy. I guess it’s love.
The cat courtship can go on for a couple of weeks. When this gray tabby (who I cleverly named Gray) first showed up on the scene, Blondie would growl fiercely whenever he approached her. But now, two weeks later, whenever he shows up, she makes this purring/clucking sound of pure delight. I guess Gray finally wore down her resistance with his manly charms. Cats. Sheesh.
But Blondie isn’t “easy,” as we used to say. Blondie doesn’t put out for just anybody. She made Gray really work for it. The first week, every time Gray showed up, Blondie would run off up the hill. Gray spent a solid week chasing after her. Stalking her, basically. I guess Blondie was playing hard-to-get. But not that hard. Because every now and then she would actually succeed in ditching Gray. So she’d have to back-track and go looking for him. So they could resume the whole stalking charade. Slowly, gradually, Blondie let Gray get closer and closer to her. Until, well, finally . . . there’s a reason there are so many kittens in the world.
But I’m sure it all makes sense on an evolutionary level. Blondie was testing Gray. Making sure he was strong and resourceful. And, more important, had strong and resourceful genes. Before she made her selection.
Love really is a pretty brutal game. I guess that’s why there are so many sad-sack love songs on the radio all the time.
Fortunately I don’t have too many hospital stories. But I remember one.
A couple years ago I went completely deaf in one ear for no apparent reason. That freaked me out. Because, among many other things, I’d have to mix my music in mono from now on.
I didn’t have any medical coverage. So I went down to the county hospital where the poor people go. Waited in the reception area for about 6 hours with all the other poor people, sweating it out the whole time. Figuring I was going to have to get surgery. Or maybe, even worse, there was no cure.
FINALLY I saw a nurse. This big black babe who must have weighed about 300 pounds. I told her my plight. She immediately grabbed my head in this vice grip, this sort of half-nelson wresters move. And wedged her hand into my ear. And she popped out this big chunk of hardened ear wax. I was instantly healed. The whole thing only took about 2 minutes.
I was so grateful, I wanted to give her a big kiss.
My feral cats can tell that something’s up. This morning they were giving me this suspicious look. You see, whenever I leave town for extended periods of time I always put out heaping piles of food for them the last couple of days before I leave. To fatten them up for the famine.
So this morning their reaction at first was: “MAN OH MAN WE REALLY HIT THE JACKPOT!! JUST LOOK AT ALL THAT FOOD!!”
But then later they were giving me this funny look. Staring at me like: “Hey . . . wa-a-ait a second. This isn’t that damn leaving-town thing again, is it??!” Cats are pretty smart. They can almost read our minds sometimes. They study us and figure us out. That’s why they’re capable of living alongside us so easily.
Or maybe I just imagined all of that.
I was reading about this vending machine they developed for wild dogs. They put it in the back alleys where the wild dogs hang out. And they scent the machine with the smell of food to attract the dogs. And then when the dog hits this lever with his paw, a packet of dog food drops out. Man, I wish I could get one of those things. I wouldn’t have to worry about feeding my feral cats for months at a stretch.
Course I’m sure those damn raccoons would figure out how to break into the vending machine and make off with all the food. They’d take out screw-drivers and open it up from the back. And if there was any change in the vending machine, you can bet they’d pocket that, too. Then go down to 7-11 and order a bunch of Slurpees and hot dogs. With chile and cheese. Those raccoons are insatiable.