MARCH 21, 2010


It's been a stormy week on the Island, our hometown set here on the edge of the San Francisco Bay. One of the few words we have handed down from the First Peoples of the Bay Area is their word for fog -- Pogonip. They knew all about it. For when that great wall comes in, that means the seasons are about to change in their long-held inscrutable ways.

On the porch of Marlene and Andre's household, Snuffles Johnson pulls his ragged blanket closer around his shoulders, glad enough that he had the porch overhang to shield him from the rain. With the Great Recession in full fury across the land, the members of the little household there all knew about loss and suffering for each had seen his and her share of troubles in this time. So they all let the tramp stay there as a sort of adornment of sorts, for kindness is a strange brooch in this all hating world, as King Richard once said.

Javier skipped out on covering First Fridays and the Oakland Art Murmur on rumors that the lovely Leslie of San Leandro was out looking for him in advance of that annual debacle of a holiday known as Valentine's Day. Instead of going up to Trestle Glen, he hid out with a bucket of chicken wings and a case of beer in his apartment to watch an old road-movie starring Gene Hackman and Al Pacino called Scarecrow.

Leslie found some striking Italian with suave good looks so Javier is off the hook for now.

In any case, the sky boils with Michelangelo clouds, muscular with gods and sungold each day, while in other parts of the country George Winston plays etudes across the sifting snow crystals that sweep over the hummocky drifts.

Over at Marlene and Andre's household the place is packed to the gills with humanity, as the weather enforces all who supposedly live there to actually sleep there physically, for there is no other place to go. Jose forgot to go fetch his load of food from the monthly CFS distribution at the foodbank, so now they are all digging into the freezer for last year's production of fava bean chili. Times are tough and in such times, fava beans are the staple of the survivors. It's Winter and the Great Recession is still in full swing. Everyone is out of work and there is no money for anything. Out back, they've started the crops all around the ironmongery left by Mr. Howitzer but it will be a while before the greens fill out. Sprigs of adolescent bean plants stick up between the garlic shoots promising greater things in a few months.

Night arrives like a tired man returning home to hang up his raincoat by the door, scattering a few drops here and there before turning out the lights. Around the little cottage the swaddled bulks shift and snore in their sleeping bags. Occasional Quentin reposes again under the coffee table while Mancini, Xavier, and Pahrump occupy the floor with Bonkers and Johnny Cash. Suan has the couch again. The hallway bunks are all filled with Marsha, Tipitina, Alexis and Piedro. Jose has the closet and of course, Andre and Marlene use the one bed with Wickiwup.

Martini, who used to work at the NUMMI automobile factory in Fremont, mentions that he got some work this weekend blowing leaves.

That's good, said Xavier. Then everyone is quiet for a while.

Do you think these hard times will ever end, asked Martini.

No, said Pahrump. Get used to it.

Okay, said Martini.

These days Pedro Almeida needed to go out the Golden Gate each morning before dawn, piloting by the instruments through the thick wrap. Ever since the Costco Busan had spoiled the Bay with tons of fuel oil, the herring catch had vanished, so all the privateers had to make their way out beyond the Gate to the Pacific shelf for whatever still swam or scuttled for the taking.

The life of a private fisherman is a hard one by any standard and Pedro hoped that with a little put by the kids would not have to work like this in all kinds of weather, counting on luck and a St. Christopher around his neck to come home each day. Still, they say the man called Jesus was a sailor who spent a long time watching from his lonely wooden tower. Until only drowning men could see him. Or was that how the song went? Pedro went about his business on the boat, El Borracho Perdido with the black lab named Tugboat paddling after him. And so the two of them puttered off into the fog.

Over at the Island Offices the Editor has been trying to get Javier back on the art gallery beat. Javier, stooping about in gauze bandages and mildly doped on Vicodin merely groaned. Javier, Martini and Festus (the messenger hamster) had all been severely scalded during a disastrous incident at the House last week.

"Come one now, Javier!" said the Editor. "Its not really Spring yet, so there's no real danger and nobody will recognize you and besides," he added. "You might work the sympathy angle for some juicy info!"

Festus snickered in what seemed to be a sardonic and disbelieving manner.

"As you, dear rodent," soon as the ice melts its up to the Great White North for you!"

The Editor still had not given up his pipedream of brokering a sister city status with the Mayor of Lake Wobegon and his methodology of communication scarcely made the enterprise any more realistic. He did know that Spring is Nature's most dangerous Season, however the rime was still on the shore for now. As for the dangers of Spring, especially for boys like Javier, more on that next week after the snows have had a chance to soften.

"Listen, I can hardly put you on the ambulance chasing / house fire beat looking like that, now can I?" The Editor gestured at Javier's swaddles.

The eyes in the swaddle rolled back and another groan emitted.

The trapdoor popped open at that moment and a terrible reek arose from the chasm revealed amid ghostly vapors. The tousled head of Chad, erstwhile mad scientist and HTML coder popped up. "Hey boss! Got some great effects I wanna show ya!"

Chad was waving a vial of some greasy yellowish liquid that sloshed sluggishly inside the container. A copyboy rushing past caused him to clasp the vial to his chest and shout at the retreating back of the copyboy, "Idiot! Be careful!"

"What the hell is that in your hands?" asked the Editor.

"Oh this? Do we have a blast-proof bunker lined with reinforced concrete around here?"

"Now Chad . . .", began the Editor.

Meanwhile over at the Old Same Place Bar, Suzie was locking up for the night. It being still mid-season, and the Great Recession, there were few tourists tonight, making for a thin wallet of tips and a narrow margin for the bar. And come Monday, tomorrow, the rent was due all around. Suzie put her head down on her crossed arms on the table. Dawn sat there running over the receipts and Padraic came out to say he was closing up the kitchen. "Want anything?" he said.

"Toasted, all in," said Dawn. "And you me dear?" she addressed Suzie, who just shook her head.

"Well its how a girl keeps her figure," Dawn commented. "But do let us know if you be wantin' anything."

She propped her chin on her fists, an oval face perched on a column of knuckles like a museum exhibit. Earlier a man had been posting For Sale notes on the corkboard among the tax services and the rental notices. Turned out he was selling everything he had and moving to Houston in Texas. He was not from Houston or even from Texas -- he originally came from Minot, North Dakota, but Texas is where all the money is right now, or so it seemed to the man. And nobody in their right mind ever returned to North Dakota, let alone a place as godforsaken as Minot.

He fell into talking with a man who hailed from Caldwell, Nebraska and a lady from Nis, which is in present day Croatia.

"Actually I am from a town west of Nis, but that town does not exist anymore," the lady said. The last time she had visited back there all the streets and houses had been bombed out and no one lived there any more. She was interested in the man going to Texas because she was thinking about investing in a property development there. She had come a long way from a Croatian waif to someone of means in America.

The man from Caldwell was interested in buying the Fender guitar and amp being sold. It was a tube amp and the guitar was made in the USA. The man selling his stuff had been an investment banker in Babylon before the Crash. Now he had nothing except his toys, which meant little to him anymore. He sold the guitar and amp for five hundred dollars and seemed glad to get it.

As for the man from Caldwell, he and his family had been paid by the government to leave their town and never come back. The local mining concern had tunneled right underneath Main Street such that now all the houses and streets were falling into the Pit. It was a kind of ironic Town Going to Hell situation, the man said. So he and the townspeople took the money, which was not much, and left. He thinks they put a fence around the town so nobody could get in, but he couldn't be sure about that.

The two of them, the man from Caldwell and the man from Minot left together to finalize their deal. Later on the man from Caldwell returned with a troubled look and ordered a Fat Tire and a shot. The trouble was not the guitar or the amp, both in hardly played pristine condition despite being well over thirty years old. No, that was not the trouble.

"His flat," said the man from Caldwell, "Is one of those chic places down by the water. You know: outdoor hottub, gated parking garage, elevators, landscaping. The whole bit. But his place looked like a tornado had hit. Like the worst of the Projects over there across the water. Stuff everywhere on the floor, everything broken or soiled like the aftermath of some disaster. He had been one of those traders working in the City before the Crash. After everything tanked, he just started losing everything until he was just selling what he had left. I looked at the equipment -- barely touched since he had bought it. And he sat there on the edge of the bed with the guitar on his lap for a long time, like he was . . . all in the process of surrender. He had never learned to play the thing, but kept it to be one of the last things to unload. I don't think he had much left to sell.

I drove through Minot once before. Just a couple of motels, a stripper bar, gas station, and signs pointing through the blowing prairie grass to the Border ten miles north. There aint even a church with a cemetary.

So there he was, the man from Minot, with nothing to return to when things go bad. It was . . .", he hesitated, searching for words. "It was like the wreckage of an entire life. I paid him the money, took the stuff and left. Now I need a drink."

That had been hours ago, but Suzie still dwelled upon these things. Its a dark night in a City that knows how to keep its secrets, but in the Old Same Place Bar sits one bartender still pondering Life's Persistent Questions.

Padraic brought in Dawn's sandwich then went back to turn out the lights there.

The long howl of the throughpassing train ululated across the storied waters of the estuary from Oaktown to the Island as the engine wended its way from the brightly lit gantries of the Port through the dark and shuttered storefronts of the Jack London Waterfront, heading off to parts unknown.