JULY 24, 2009


Its been a quiet week on the Island, our hometown set here on the edge of the San Francisco Bay. We finally got a bit of warm weather around here for a spell, leading some people to believe that summer might really happen. All the gardeners went out to sit or kneel in front of their respective tomato bushes, all heavy with dense green globes, green now for some three or four weeks, and the gardeners all could be heard pleading with embarrassingly plaintive voices for things to start blushing a bit before Fall.

Its the Bay Area; you garden, you reap what you sow, and the sowing is often bitter and dry.

In SoCal you plant a pepper bush, you get honest to god peppers. Peppers that will make your eyes water when you cut them open. Here, you get these tiny lumps that you can chomp down like grapes or corn chips, so poor is their lack of heat.

Down at the Old Same Place Bar, Marsha was sitting with Pahrump, Jose, Javier, and Xavier, all from Marlene and Andre's household on Otis. They were sitting there because, as the summer nights remained chill, all denizens who slept there at night were, in fact, sleeping there at night.

Since nearly fifteen people paid infrequent rent to sleep there, things could get crowded after lights out.

The usurious state of rents in the Bay Area being what it was, the house on Otis had simply opted to take on ever more roommates to level out the landlord's extortion. On hot summer nights, folks found accommodations along the beach and in the parks. But latterly, it had been chill.

The house on Otis was not unusual. There were places in Babylon where people had nailed shelves stacked five bunks high in former hallways and livingrooms to get well over sixty people to sleep in one bedroom apartments. Many bunks were rented in eight hour stints. Hey. Gouge for rent, this is what you get: inevitable push-back.

In any case we have already heard about how Occasional Quentin grew up in the Bay Area and was arrested for trying to swim across Golden Gate Park. We have heard about how Tipitina's father came from Louisiana during the war years to help build the ships that would defeat the Axis Powers. You have read about how Rolph lost his mother, quite suddenly, while standing on the bridge over the River Spee opposite the Molecule Man and so came to San Francisco with a stolen passport after many trials. Still to come, the story of Javier and his father's battle to save the family home from Caltrans, which seized the property to build the 580 freeway.

Now, we come to Marsha. Hers is the story that is so common it disappears. Hers is the story of one who came to the Golden State, not with flowers in their hair, but with grim determination in a smoking, battered Volvo, with a broken alarm clock, a tattered guitar case, and a dog named Bonkers and not much more in assets other than a late-night tearstained half-torn promise to a friend she was sure she would never see again, a promise carried long over the long miles and baked deserts and dust of the empty plains, held close to the still beating heart, enfolding that promise like a treasure.

That promise was a simple promise and she would never forget it. It was the night before she would leave the Belchertown Road behind, her job as a bartender -- with all of its fabulous career potential -- and all of the Jersey Shore forever. Everybody knew all about it, especially her friend Alesha.

They had been friends for a year or so, ever since Marsha had wandered in there looking for a job after troubles in Redbank. It was a big place, with a restaurant attached and a stage where local bands played covers of bad dance songs to largely indifferent clientele.

That night Alesha had made a confession to Marsha there in the bar. She told Marsha that her relationship to Rudy was not all that it appeared to be.

"Everybody says he is so handsome, such a catch. The girls are all envious. We go to the Bowl 'n Rock and they all get google-eyed. But its not that way. Not really. Rudy . . . Rudy, he beats me. He beats me, it hurts so much, but I can't leave him. You know this small town. . . The way people talk . . .".

Marsha tried to problem solve. Offer suggestions. Shelter maybe . . . But Alesha would not hear of it.

"Honey, I am never gonna leave; I am gonna die hear. You found a chance; you gonna leave. Honey, you promise you get there, to that California, you walk down there on that beach and you find a sand dollar. Or any old shell. Just as long as you find it yourself. And you send it to me. Would you do that? Would you do that for me?"

And Marsha said she would.

Across the vast expanse of the American steppes and the towering ramparts of its mountain ranges, Marsha kept on with Bonkers looking out the window, serious, contemplative. Carrying that promise. Through thunderstorm and theft and breakdowns and driving off the road in North Dakota and more besides she held that promise to her, close.

Months later, one day, she found herself there, living in the City. On a Special Day, she walked down to the Ocean Beach and bent to pick up a sand dollar she found there and she put it in her pocket to carry back and send to a friend from whom she had heard nothing for many months.

Because some people need to know the idea of California still exists, out there beyond the limits of the imagination, a place that still fastens desire, a place as necessary to America as hope.

Next week, more about Marsha and why she came to California.

As Marsha began her story in the Old Same Place, Suzie wiped down the counter and from far off across the choppy water of the estuary came the long wail of the throughpassing train as it wended its way through the dark and shuttered Jack London Waterfront.



The fogs have been hanging in late and returning early, so the tomatoes are all taking their time producing around here. The weekend, being generally recognized by the Establishment as significant, provided for a bit more sunshine, so all the families were out and about. Many went out to the Strand to enjoy the water ebbing back from high tide and scamper among the tide pools.

Over at Marlene and Andre's crowded household they had a fine repast of polebeans plucked that day from the ironmongery trellis out back where a sort of Recession Garden was battling against the sandy soil, trash and discarded pieces of various American automobiles, which are well known for longevity in afterlife. Someone had used the bed of a Ford pickup as a compost bed and it now hosted several surpisingly healthy tomato bushes. Garlic, onions, and similar savory things sprouted from the wreck of a Geo Sport, which has spent its past fourteen winters as an Anger Management Object, taking the worst end of a nine pound hammer, an acetelene torch, and a detached mitre saw at various times.

The skeletons of more than a couple Morris Minors leaned up against the Old Fence and the frame of an honest to god caddilac stood upended from the hole into which it had been pushed many years ago.

When Mr. Howitzer took possession of something for which he had no use, no need and no apptitude to repair, he typically had it hauled to the back of his property on Otis, where, somehow, these things which he loathed to donate to charity as simple give-aways, managed to disappear on their own by degrees.

Mr. Howitzer was so constructed as to absolutely detest the very idea of giving something away for nothing, even for sake of a tax break, unless it were to the Ronnie Raygun Star Wars Memorial Fund, the Bohemian Grove Benefit, the Hoover Institute, and such things, for Mr. Howitzer was possessed of more money and possessions than reason.

At the Household, the denizens gradually stripped the repoed vehicles of everything sellable and useable, disposed of toxic waste appropriately on Waste Days, and converted these seizures into planters. In the end, it all worked out for the best.

Except for the poor sap who defaulted on a payment to Mr. Howitzer; that person, of course, got the worst of it in losing his broke-down Geo Sport.

After this fine meal of beans and rice gotten from the Charity Basket Depot, the group headed on over to the Old Same Place Bar where Marsha continued with her story of how she came to California.

As you may recall, Marsha tended bar at the Belchertown Bar in New Jersey, and everybody knew about her plans to leave the Garden State to head West, including her poor friend Alesha, who begged her to ship back a sand dollar garnered from the beach there to show she had arrive safe and sound.

Such is the mindset of those all along the Jersey Shore. Sure, you can find a sand dollar anywhere; they hawk them in every kitschy shop along the boardwalk. Just put one in a box and send it.

From an ocean 3,000 miles away.

Do they even have sand dollars in the entire Pacific Ocean? No idea.

In any case, how her plans came about to leave such a charming place with such a homey name as "Garden State", needs to be related, even in brief.

Contrary to popular opinion, not much of New Jersey is Paradise, nor is much of it a garden.

We hate to disabuse all of you of this notion, but only a small portion of New Jersey is verdant and useful for raising horses and all that is up around Trenton and New Hope, PA, which is full of Gay People, so there you go.

Some may object. There is Cape May and the charming Pine Barrens, the latter of which are full of pines and, well, barren. Sand. Cape May is full of rocks, salt and, well, barren. Rock.

The weather is not so good either.

Okay, so much for New Jersey. It does have its charms. Even without the Sopranos and all that.

Back to Marsha. She came home one day and found the usual, and expected, note of apologia. The man she had been seeing had left that morning with Eulalia Shumacher, distant cousin to the Shumachers of New York and something of a bon vivant, bubbly socialite, never to return. He had taken the good car with the keys, his shoes and most of the bank account, leaving the rent notice and his own letter on the fridge.

She opened a random cupboard to pull out a bottle of Johnny Walker and a glass that had once seen a washing cycle many moons ago when the machine actually worked and poured a tall one.

In retrospect, he had never told her he loved her, or even if he had liked her very much, and never made love in the conventional sense except at night in a sort of useful fashion. She had had a suspicion for a long time that he was fooling around. You know. Stains on the shirts. Late nights away. Nervous explanations. Telephone calls. Embarrassed requests for money. The usual.

The bottle quickly went to the pile in the trash bin among the many others and her eyes lit on the past due notice for the lease and to the letter from a friend in California.

The letter was an invitation unlike all the others in her life. Always, throughout her short life, the requests of her had been for some kind of surrender, some kind of abjection. Please do this for me. I need 20 dollars. I want a blowjob. Show your tits. Come work for me; I don't pay much.

This was a note offering a simple place to stay for a short while to learn something different.

She wrote back, got a response, and soon, all the official notices went out. Everybody in the restaurant knew: their bird was flying the coop and they knew she would not be back any time soon.

It was the night before she was to leave. That's when Alesha made her confession. "Honey, he beats me every night. Please send back a sand dollar."

It was with grim determination that Marsha got behind the wheel of that rusting Rambler with the puppy Bonkers there on the passenger seat. She was no ordinary woman, but a woman on a mission. She carried a promise and more besides as she set out across the vast steppes of the American plains, having all sorts of adventures along the way.

All the people she met along the way. Beth, with her shattered voice, survivor of brutality. The French woman whose children nearly drowned. Karen with her indomitable struggles from the black pit of despair, bad marriage, theft, and psychiatric hospital horrors.

These stories she would carry with her across the mountains, the young pup yapping and pooping beside her in that old rattletrap car.

Until she finally arrived in dense fog, somehow misdirected onto the Island by somebody not from here.

That's where Andre found her, looking out over the water at the Strand, wondering how the devil to get over there in a leaky Rambler with a labrador puppy.

Looks like you need a place to stay, said Andre.

I don't need nothin', said Marsha, still pure New Jersey. Who the hell was this guy anyway with the rings in his nose and his jacket?

Right then Bonkers bounded across the strand to greet Wickiwup, who sniffed. Sniff. Butt sniff. Good sniff! Yeeah! Sniff! Great butt! Sniff ahoy!

Right then the two dogs managed to figure out what was friend and what was foe right away.

So that is how Marsha came go join the little household on Otis Street.

So they all sat back and sighed. That is the way it was. In the Early Days, when dinosaurs strode the earth. And people could be people to one another. And dogs led the way. The way it should be.

Right then the long wail of the throughpassing train made its way through the dark and shuttered storefronts of the Jack London Waterfront.

It wavered across the choppy estuary, across the Buena Vista Flats, across the old Beltline railbed, across the dark brick cannery, across the new developments of the industrial park, across the Gold Coast District and across the Old Same Place Bar, where our people huddled for warmth and conversation in a clean well lighted room on this chilly July evening.

That's the way it is on the Island. Have a great week.